The task of describing Trisha Brown’s unique form of dancing is daunting. Its inscrutable blend of zaniness, athleticism, delicacy, and logic, always evading mimetic clichés, similarly eludes language, like a half-forgotten word or phrase that can’t quite roll off the tip of the tongue.
American choreographer Trisha Brown (1936–2017) is remembered for her work at the Judson Dance Theater and her subsequent choreographies based on postmodern dance aesthetics and working methods. During her career, Brown created nearly a hundred works, one ballet, six operas and made drawings from the 1960s onwards.
Trisha Brown studied dance at Mills College in California, where she learned Graham technique, and for several years at the American Dance Festival with teachers such as José Limón, Merce Cunningham and Louis Horst. She grew up in the context of American white modern dance techniques of the 1950s, in which movement growing from the torso towards the legs and arms was key to the expressive and emotional content of the dances. (see Developments of Dance Modernisms) Brown learned improvisation in the workshops of Anna Halprin. In addition, from the early 1960s, she practised a variety of body techniques based on perception of physicality, body alignment and anatomical understanding. The Alexander Technique, the Klein Technique and the methods of Elaine Summers focused on the release of the physical and psychological dimensions of movement, as well as on relaxation and a certain ease of movement happening through understanding. The methods of developing body–mind awareness were present throughout Brown’s career and had a significant impact on the movement language of the works.
In 1961–1962, Brown participated in Robert Dunn’s composition workshop, which was based on the methods of composer John Cage. (see The Postmodern Spectrum) Dunn did not seek specific answers to the problems he presented, but was interested in the students’ individual solutions and ways of approaching composition. The aim was to seek alternatives to the established aesthetics and conventions of American white modern dance, which the young generation of the 1960s, interested in the avant-garde, found restrictive and outmoded. Brown said she understood from Dunn’s workshop that choreographers have the right to decide how to construct a dance: they can experiment and make dances according to their current needs.
First Choreographies and Judson Dance Theater
Brown cites John Cage as her most important influence, and her choreography has recognisable Cagean trains of thought. Most of Brown’s so-called early works of 1962–1978 were abstract, conceptual choreographies performed in silence to the accompaniment of breathing and other bodily sounds. Many of the dances lasted less than five minutes. The reduced form of the choreographies emphasised the “object-ness” of the dances, where attention was focused on the concept and the movement itself. Therefore Brown’s art uniquely extended into interdisciplinary territory, particularly at the intersection of dance and visual arts. Choreographies were often performed in gallery spaces, and the “white box” of the visual arts context supported the internal logic and functionality of Brown’s abstract works.
Browin’s first choreography Trillium (1962) is an improvisational structure based on three tasks: standing, sitting and lying down. By exploring these activities, Brown discovered resting, strength, momentum and idiosyncrasy as the motifs of the dance. The soundscape for the work was a recording of Simone Fort’s sound improvisation. Brown’s work relied heavily on breaking Louis Horst’s formal approach to choreography, where the subordination of dance to the structure of the music was central. Brown instead drew on Cage’s ideas about listening to sound and its duration as a framing device for dance. Brown’s next choreography, Lightfall (1963), her first work with the Judson Dance Theater collective, was a duet with Steve Paxton. The work was based on the earlier experiments of partner work, the violent aspects of which Brown had explored with Simone Forti and Dick Levine. The structure of Lightfall was partly based on improvisation, and the piece contained various movement sections, including passages based on running and turns, and a section in which one dancer climbed on the back of the other without knowing when they would be pushed off that dancer’s back.
Many of the artists who began working with Judson Dance Theater used everyday movement as a material for dance, for example in Yvonne Rainer’s Room Service (1963) the physicality of the dancers came from carrying and moving mattresses. Later, Steve Paxton’s Satisfying Lover (1967) was based on standing, walking and sitting. Brown’s choreographies, however, soon began to produce their own abstract movement languages and modes of movement. Rulegame 5 (1964), for example, was based on instructions and rules according to which performers changed position and height in relation to each other. In addition to Brown, Paxton and Forti, it featured as performer the visual artist Robert Rauschenberg, who later contributed to some of Brown’s most important works. Brown was also a skilled and agile improviser, which did not entirely fit with all avant-garde ideas about questioning technique or virtuoso movement.
By the early 1960s, Brown was moving around a lot in different environments in the art scene, participating in Fluxus events and Yoko Ono’s loft improvisation performances. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, she was part of a diverse group of artists who lived, worked and performed in what is now the SoHo area of New York City. Laurie Anderson compared this dynamic energy of early 1970s New York to 1920s Paris. It was in this context that the Trisha Brown Dance Company was born in 1970.
Working on Gravity – Dances with Equipment
Brown’s works can be structured in cycles, with each series focusing on a particular theme or issue. One of Brown’s interests was the study of the body and movement in relation to gravity. A series of works called Equipment Pieces used various mechanisms or supports – harnesses, ropes, spatial constructions – to alter the effect of gravity on the body. In Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (1970), a dancer walked perpendicularly down the brick wall of a seven-storey building. The event itself functioned as a kind of dance-producing machine, as the situation gave the dancer a starting point at the edge of the roof, instructions for the action of walking down the wall, and an end point on reaching the ground. In all the works in the series, the dancers performed in the situation defined by the equipment as ergonomically as possible. The equipment decides the choreography of the piece on behalf of the dancer and controls the physicality of the dance, sometimes also deciding the soundscape of the piece when speech is needed to reach a consensus on the use of the equipment.
The dancers climbed a wall mechanism of holes built on the gallery wall (Planes, 1968), walked horizontally on the gallery walls (Walking on the Wall, 1971) or down a spiral path along a column (Spiral, 1972). Leaning Duets (1970), instead, was based on balancing outside the centre of gravity of one’s body. It involved two dancers leaning on each other, and later became even more challenging when ropes were used to increase the distance between the dancers. The minimalist choreography needed no metaphor or theatrical dimension to support it; the movement itself was enough, while the dance did not hide the way in which the effect of gravity was altered.
The urban environment could also provide a setting for dance, as in Roof Piece (1971), which placed dancers on the roofs of 12 skyscrapers around New York City. Movement passed from one dancer to another, travelling a distance of ten blocks, with each dancer acting simultaneously as sender and receiver of movement. During the Covid-19 pandemic, a virtual version of the work was made, Room/Roof Piece (2020), in which movement is transmitted from one dancer to another via a computer camera.
Dances that Accumulate Movement
The series of works that accumulate movement, Accumulation Pieces, was based on the combination of movements into a series. Accumulation (1971) begins with the dancer’s thumbs and gradually progresses through the elbows and shoulders to the whole body. In a precise and minimalist choreography, the sequence of movements, that is always done from start to finish, gradually increases in length as one movement is added at the end of the sequence each round. In contrast, Primary Accumulation (1972) is performed lying on the floor, repeating soft movements in a slow and hypnotic flow. Brown liberated the feet from their role of holding the body upright and used them as equal elements with other parts of the body. The work is a simple series of 30 movements based on organic movement. Some movements rotate the dancer 45 degrees in space so that the next repetition of a movement sequence offers the viewer a new perspective on the entire dance. In this collection of works, Brown’s approach to movement was very mathematical.
Locus (1975) changed Brown’s movement language from simple sequences of movements with a clear logic towards a dance that appears complex, even strange. In the piece, Brown constructed a mathematical system based on a cube imagined by each dancer in space. The dancer stood inside the cube, and 27 points were assigned to the sides of the cube, corresponding to letters of the alphabet, so that a kind of linguistic system was formed around the dancer. Brown wrote a simple text which, when translated into numbers (A=1, B=2, C=3…), was transformed into a spatial map. The dancers looked for ways of moving in relation to points on the cube with the map, for example by touching, looking, jumping or moving through a point. When the dance was performed, there could be, for example, 20 cubes in the space, from which the dancers could choose their starting point, the direction of the dance and the movement phrase they wanted to use. Locus is geometric, complex and surprising in its movement language, even though it takes place in a very small space within the shape of a cube.
With Locus, Brown’s way of constructing dances changed, as movement was no longer created in the choreographer’s body, but was the result of the system’s action. Brown was constantly searching for different systems and structures that would bring forth new ways of moving and new realities. “Merce [Cunningham] worked with chance; I worked with structure,” as Brown describes her working method. Instead of creating movement and organising it into dance, Brown revealed how movement is a consequence of choreography. Choreography could be a physical situation or a mathematical system: an environment that generated movement and thus made dance happen.
Exploring the Context of Theatre
In 1979, Brown’s work took a major turn when she began to work on theatre stages. Glacial Decoy (1979) questioned the conventions of the proscenium stage, as if continuing Brown’s artistic values of the 1960s and 1970s, but questioning the laws of the theatre stage. Moreover, from 1978 onwards, Brown was interested in her own body as an instrument and the particular quality of movement it produced. The unchained, surprising and light movement of Watermotor (1978) is inspired by Brown’s childhood memories, but at the same time the choreography is extremely precise. According to Brown, it wasn’t until 1978, after 16 years of working in dance, that “dancing” became part of her choreography.
Gradually, Brown developed a way of working in which she first created movement material and then allowed the dancers to improvise with the given movement. The technique was called “memorised improvisation.” In the process of Set and Reset (1983), the technique reached its peak, and the choreography is often called a masterpiece of postmodern dance. The starting point of the work is a movement phrase constructed by Brown, using a lot the joints (knees, ankles, hips, shoulders) and proposing a soft, articulated and flowing movement quality. The movement is organic but precise down to the last millimetre. The phrase contains many syncopated rhythms and sudden changes of direction, resulting in complex and precise movement sequences that are built up piece by piece. After carefully learning the movement phrase, the dancers improvised with the material – rearranging, reworking, repeating, etc. – and the choreographer built the composition of the piece from these improvisations, deciding the final order and structure of the movements in space.
In the process, the working group also identified a set of operating principles – five guidelines that dancers follow when dancing the piece:
- Keep it simple.
- Play with visibility and invisibility.
- If you don’t know what to do, get in line.
- Stay on the outside edge of the stage.
- Act on instinct.
The guidelines help dancers to make quick decisions in the moment of dancing, clarify the choreography spatially and give them the freedom to respond to the events of the moment.
Set and Reset makes visible the tension between improvised and organised material, between movement happening in the moment and learned movement. The movement is extremely worked and refined by the dancer. The composition plays with the movement of the individual dancer as soloist and simultaneously as a member of the group. Each dancer has their own movement path, but brief moments of the same movement performed simultaneously occur throughout the choreography. Momentarily, the dancers arrange themselves into a line, which breaks up again into space, the stage image alternating between ordered and unordered. The composition is geometrically precise yet unpredictable, as is the movement of each dancer, and this opens up before the spectator a kind of cornucopia of movement and composition, a multi-layered and ever-changing tapestry that escapes univocal understanding and definition.
Set and Reset continues Brown’s exploration of the laws of theatre, as the composition of the work explores the relationship to the centre of the stage, the most important point in the space. Brown chose to begin the choreography at the edge of the space, from which the movement material sends duets and trios towards the centre of the stage. The transparent drops of fabric, hanging ”legs” replacing wings, designed by Robert Rauschenberg, blur the distinction between the stage and the space at the side, as the action at the sides – for example, the dancers waiting or preparing – becomes part of the choreography. Composer Laurie Anderson’s music “Long Time No See” consists of everyday found sounds such as bells, beeps, breaking dishes and synthetic speech sounds. The artists worked in close collaboration so that Brown’s choreographic thinking was evident in all aspects of the piece. The aim was for each art form to be independent, but also highly collaborative. Many artists of the era such as Fujiko Nakaya, Donald Judd or Nancy Graves collaborated with Brown. In addition, the development of art funding systems during the period allowed for longer working processes, and this benefited Brown’s output throughout the 1980s.
Set and Reset finally brought Brown’s work to the attention of a wider audience. It is her best known and most performed work and part of the repertoire of the still-active Trisha Brown Dance Company. The Set and Reset/Reset version of the work is based on Brown’s original methods, but with a completely new version of the choreography built each time around the dancers’ work and movement. The choreography is thus shaped to look like the dancers who perform it; for example, the British Candoco Dance Company’s version of the work includes moving with crutches and wheelchairs. (see Ableism in Dance) The project is also carried out for professional dance students, and in Finland it has been immersed, for example, in 2010 and 2012 by master’s students at the Theatre Academy of Finland.
Works from the 1990s and 2000s
Brown’s late output from 1989–2011 includes many large-scale works, such as six operas (including to music by Monteverdi) and one ballet O Zlozony/O Composite (2004) in collaboration with Laurie Anderson. Brown also created works for classical music, including compositions by Schubert and Bach. Smaller choreographies include the solo If You Couldn’t See Me (1994), in which Brown dances the entire ten-minute choreography with her back to the audience. In the 1995 duet You Can See Us, Brown collaborated with choreographer Bill T. Jones, and in the 1996 version of the work she danced with Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Brown drew throughout her artistic career, and drawing was also a way for her to create choreography using different patterns, shapes and systems. There are similarities between the drawings and the choreographies of the same period. Her work has been exhibited in galleries and museums, including the Venice Biennale, the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the MoMA in New York. In It’s a Draw (2002), drawing takes place in full view of the spectator – present on stage or in real time in the museum space via a camera, as the case may be – forming “a hybrid of improvised dance and automatic drawing.” Brown moves on a large sheet of paper (about 3 x 3 m) fixed to the floor, using charcoal and pastels. However, the paper does not limit the dance; Brown’s movements extend beyond it. Both standing and on the floor, the dancer seeks contact with the surface of the paper with a soft and fluid movement, but the dance leaves more of an imprint on the paper than a form:
Her body, charcoal, and pastel move between the intentional and the accidental, between forethought and spontaneity, between marking and erasing, between almost drawing and almost writing but never quite.
Drawing and dance coexist in space, this time critically reflecting on the context of the visual arts, galleries and the museum. The work has been shown at the Montpellier Dance Festival, The Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
Brown worked in a variety of contexts from the early 1960s, and continued to move between different frameworks throughout her career. The public urban space, the galleries and museum institutions of the visual arts context, and the stages of theatre and opera are all sites for Brown’s dance – and the smooth crossing of these boundaries is a challenge to the rigid classification of dance art. Susan Rosenberg, a long-time scholar of Brown’s work, also stresses the importance of endlessly flowing, unpredictable and rich use of the body as a choreographic legacy. Brown was a dancer interested in free but precise movement, a trailblazer of a dance based on improvisation and various body techniques led by conscious and intelligent body, which in the 21st century is an undeniable part of contemporary dance.
1 Choreographer Yvonne Rainer describes Trisha Brown’s dance. Brown & Rainer 2017, 75.
2 Louis Horst (1884–1964) was Martha Graham’s accompanist and composer, and considered the most important composition pedagogue of the period. Brown studied with him at the American Dance Festival for three summers (1956, 1959, 1961). Brown’s teachers Eleanor Lauer and Rebecca Fuller also taught Horst’s methods at Mills College. Rosenberg 2017, 15.
3 Brown & Rainer 2017, 81.
4 At Anna Halprin’s workshops in San Francisco in the summer of 1960, Brown met Simone Fort and Yvonne Rainer. They persuaded Brown to move from the West Coast to New York in 1961. Brown associates improvisation and kinetic tasks particularly with Halprin, who spoke of working on a task, such as dressing or sweeping the floor, as a kind of found movement – a way of performing in which the task helps to avoid subjective decision making. This creates choreographic forms that are not based on narrative, characters or self-expression and that propose movement in the moment of improvisation, not by imitating given movement patterns. Rosenberg 2017, 19.
5 Rosenberg 2017, 212–213.
6 Banes 1993, 20–21.
7 Rosenberg 2017, 3.
8 Rosenberg 2017, 3–4.
9 Harris 2018a, 148.
10 Rosenberg 2017, 15–16. In Halprin’s workshops, many choreographers got their first contact with intuitive processes by experimenting with physical suggestions and tasks in a playful space. Simone Fort’s sound improvisations and the powerful sensations they revealed had a strong influence on Brown. In the modern dance environment, dominated by Louis Horst’s formalist approach to choreography and composition, improvisation was not valued. Brown 2002, 290.
11 Banes 1993, 100–101.
12 Rosenberg 2017, 3.
13 Rosenberg 2017, 34–35. Referring to Brown’s diary entries in 1978. Growing up in the context of modern dance, Brown had certain interests in movement and skill that she says she avoided while working with Judson Dance Theater.
14 The buildings of a vacant industrial site on the area of the current SoHo provided a space for a large and enthusiastic group of artists, including dancers, filmmakers, poets, musicians and visual artists such as Laurie Anderson and Gordon Matta-Clark. A space for art and performance was opened first at 98 Greene Street and later, in 1970, a second space at 112 Greene Street. The dynamic environment hosted exhibitions, installations and performance and dance events. In addition to Brown, artists such as Deborah Hay, Carol Goodden and the improvisation collective Grand Union shared their artistic work in this environment. The artists also opened a restaurant in the neighbourhood called Food, which served as a meeting place and helped several artists to support themselves financially. Yee 2011, 17–19.
15 Yee 2011, 17.
16 Yee 2011, 20.
17 Banes 1987, 82.
18 Banes 1987, 83–84.
19 Banes 1987, 86.
20 Eleey 2008, 21.
21 Rosenberg 2017, 3.
22 Rosenberg 2017, 5, 230.
23 There is a recording of the choreography, the dance film Water Motor, shot by Babette Mangolte. The choreography is performed twice, at normal speed and in slow motion, revealing details hidden in the real time of the dance.
24 Rosenberg 2017, 3.
25 Brown 2002, 291.
26 For more on the composition of the work, see Un entretien avec Trisha Brown, Chaillot-Théâtre National de la Danse, 2009. https://www.numeridanse.tv/videotheque-danse/un-entretien-avec-trisha-brown?s Accessed 30.12.2021.
27 Rosenberg 2017, 267.
28 Brown invited Laurie Anderson to compose the music for the piece, just after she had risen to prominence with her album Oh Superman, which combined avant-garde with popular music. Brown sent a video of the first movement of the piece, a duet with dancer Diane Maden, without sound to Anderson. It was a method Brown had used before, for the music of her earlier works. As the choreography progressed, Anderson received new videos, which allowed her to create a very close relationship between movement and sound in what Anderson called “electronic closeness.” Rosenberg 2017, 265–266.
29 Rosenberg 2017, 230–231. The role of music was not only to support the choreography, as in the works of Martha Graham, but Brown did not seek to isolate the arts, as Merce Cunningham did.
30 Rosenberg 2017, 5.
31 Rosenberg 2017, 263.
33 Yee 2011, 23. André Lepecki mentions the connection between the 1970s work Locus and the Quadrigrams series of drawings. Lepecki 2006, 68.
34 Lepecki 2006, 65.
35 Lepecki 2006, 71.
37 Rosenberg 2017, 211–212.
Banes, Sally. 1987. Terpsichore in Sneakers. Post-Modern Dance. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.
Banes, Sally. 1993. Democracy’s Body. Judson Dance Theater, 1962–1964. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press.
Brown, Trisha & Rainer, Yvonne. 2017. “Conversation.” In Yvonne Rainer, ed. Moving and Being Moved. Amsterdam: Roma Publications, 75–84.
Brown, Trisha. 2002. “How to Make a Modern Dance When the Sky’s the Limit.” In Hendel Teicher, ed. Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dialogue, 1961–2001. Cambridge: MIT Press, 289–293.
Brown, Trisha & Kertess, Klaus. 2004. Trisha Brown Early Works 1966–1979. Conversation with Trisha Brown and Klaus Kertess. DVD. Artpix.
Eleey, Peter. 2008. “If You Couldn’t See Me: The Drawings of Trisha Brown.” In Peter Eleey, ed. Trisha Brown: So That the Audience Does Not Know Whether I Have Stopped Dancing. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 18–35.
Harris, Jenny. 2018a. “Trisha Brown, Trillium, 1962; Lightfall, 1963.” In Ana Janevski & Thomas J. Lax, eds. Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done. New York: MoMA Publications, 148–149.
Lepecki, André. 2006. Exhausting Dance. Performance and the Politics of Movement. New York and London: Routledge.
Rosenberg, Susan. 2017. Trisha Brown: Choreography as Visual Art. Wesleyan University Press.
Yee, Lydia. 2011. “When the Sky Was the Limit.” In Lydia Yee, ed. Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark: Pioneers of the Downtown Scene New York 1970s. London: Barbican Art Gallery, Prestel, 13–26.
Riikka Laakso works in the field of dance as a writer, lecturer and dramaturg. She holds a PhD in performing arts from the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona (2016) and teaches theatre analysis and dance history at the Institut del Teatre de Barcelona. Laakso has collaborated with Zodiak – Centre for New Dance, the Theatre Academy, Helsinki and choreographer Sanna Kekäläinen, and is responsible for the dramaturgy of works by choreographer Marina Mascarelli.