Forever Young: Some Thoughts on Selected Choreographies of the 1970s – 1990s Today
By Trisha Brown, with Susan Rosenberg, Nov 14, 2009As a high school student in Aberdeen, Washington I was given a questionnaire meant to assign me a suitable career. I was told a future as a music librarian was in my cards. Quoi ? No doubt this was a deck dealt to many other women in 1950s America, although the test's predictive efficacy, or possible significance, didn't compute for me at the time. In light of my four-plus decades as a choreographer who has described herself as "a bricklayer with a sense of humor," there is an uncanny logic to that early measurement of my professional aptitude: my formal training at Mills College and in summer classes at the American Dance Festival with Louis Horst, the preeminent teacher of modern dance composition, would subsequently set me up to love structure, forever.
Before even setting foot on Anna Halprin's outdoor dance deck (in the summer of 1960) nature was my equipment and ordinary and athletic movement my language. Growing up in Aberdeen, Washington, I lived in trees, climbing high and then walking down uneven terrain, feeling my weight's subtly regulated, but irregular shifting â€“ all the while wishing to be airborne, to fly.
At Halprin's workshop I found task to be a sympathetic, useful way to generate movement and I was intrigued by the possibility of admitting talking into dance performance; however I still considered improvisation a taboo to be broken â€“ on my own terms. In California and then in New York in 1960 and 1962, I was twice seen transforming task into flight. This story is one of the true myths of my origins as a choreographer dedicated to unconventional virtuosity.
In 1967, I drove footholds into the wall of my SoHo loft, in order to reach the ceiling but also to move on a vertical plane. In 1970 I choreographed a walk down the faÃ§ade of the building where I lived, 80 Wooster Street, and on the same program, Dances In and Around 80 Wooster Street, I suspended myself and another dancer above the ground in clothing rigged on a gridded frame, Floor of the Forest (1970). In these works, as in Leaning Duets I (1970), gravity was enlisted as a collaborator, a machine for making dances. Back then, for a brief period, it was but a short trek from downtown Manhattan to the Whitney Museum, where, in 1971, together with seven other dancers, I walked across the white walls of a gallery emptied of all other art. Footprints, briefly left, were painted over.
For fifteen years I taught at my loft on 80 Wooster Street, preparing for one half hour by writing down 15 things to do in my class (all women, many then partnered with preeminent sculptors of New York's avant-garde). The ideas came fast and I dodged no bullets. My choreographic process was increasingly defined by a rigorous economy, although one encumbered by the required "Equipment," sculptural constructions and actual architecture used to imbue my work with an internal logic, natural and inevitable.
I shed the equipment to deliberately explore the body's structure, in particular, the capabilities of the joints and spine, where movement occurs through three tasks, bend, straighten and rotate. To make my original movement language I set off in pursuit of "pure movement," movement without connotation, movement that is neither functional nor pantomimic.
Accumulation (1971), a solo, started with one movement, the rotation of the fist with thumb extended; this was repeated and to it another movement was added; these two were repeated and then a third was added, and so on. Built from self-contained movement units, each Accumulation dance is also a single stationary object in three-dimensional space. From the movement material of my solo Accumulation came Primary Accumulation (1972) in which a supine figure systematically accumulates thirty moves in eighteen minutes, rotating forty-five degrees each on the last two moves until a 360 degree turn is completed.
Primary Accumulation became Group Primary Accumulation when performed on May 16, 1973 in the plaza of the McGraw Hill Building on the occasion of New York's Spring Dance Festival. The midtown audience, on lunch break, caught on to my choreography's logic; to their surprise, I arranged for two male dancers to enter the plaza and lift the four women to new locations on the concrete site, while the dancers continued the choreography, unarrested. When presented at The Walker Art Center, November 9, 1974, another plane for movement was added; the dance was performed on floating rafts in the Loring Park lagoon in the rain. This environment introduced another dimension to the work: the relationship of the dancers to one another and their orientation in space was determined by the water's current dictated by the wind.
My reputation as a brainy New York choreographer kept the visual art world's attention on me in the 1970s. I performed internationally in galleries â€“ Galleria L'Attico, Rome, Sonnabend Gallery, New York; the Musée Galliera, Paris, on programs featuring contemporary art: musical, sculptural and conceptual. A still well-kept secret of the time is that in Europe works made to be seen in lofts, and other white cubes, were presented on the proscenium stage. Spanish Dance (1973) accompanied my first foray into the theater, the conventional frame for dance in our time.
A mainstay of my company, Spanish Dance was an anomaly in my work back then. It was inspired by the stage's proscenium arch, the boundary containing its deadpan presentation of group locomotion, and performed with arms raised in proud, flamenco style and hips swaying rhythmically to Gordon Lightfootâ€™s 1965 Early Morning Rain, a rare instance when music accompanied my work. Spanish Dance, could go on forever and for me is strongly connected to my company's ongoing, peripatetic movement from city to city, on tour. Today it is presented on its own and in a variety of contexts. Between 1973 and 1976 it was part of a group of works â€“ including Sticks (1973) and Figure Eight (1974) â€“ performed singly or together as Structured Pieces, dances that each emanate from a single rule and its permutations, producing group choreography discovered in the course of performance.
After the premiere of my Accumulation dances at the Wadsworth Atheneum, December 1, 1972, I was looking for a new dance. Pure movement was one contender. The second was a free-wheeling, semi-crazed, now-you-see-it, now-you-don't, improvisational approach â€“ the one I embraced wholeheartedly in 1979. However the two came together in Locus (1975), which envisions the space around the body as a cube defining the choreography's architecture. The cube is marked with imaginary points, each identified with one letter and a digit corresponding to the alphabet's 26 letters, plus number 27, the cube's and the body's center. In part I was rethinking Laban's notational effort to map the body's harmonious movement through space â€“ his kinesphere â€“ as an indeterminate choreographic format and form.
With Locus I wrote the script of my choreography through my biography, spelled out in letters equated to numbers for the body to perform. My assignment as a dancer was to touch each of the cube's 27 points in space to spell out that sentence in random without knowing what was coming next nor where it was coming from â€“ yet remaining in control. Derived from structured improvisation Locus's movement is set.
The dance is complex enough even with the explanation I supplied by showing people the Locus score, a drawing. I wanted my audience to be conversant with my methods. I was now identified with minimalism in the public's mind and eye.
In 1979 I adopted the proscenium stage as the home for my work. Today I live in choreography and opera, a post-studio world. But my art allows me to regularly inhabit parallel universes of my own making â€“ not looking back, but seeing my work live. When I made the work on this program, I was fascinated by qualities of gesture that exist on the edge of memory, made permanent through the act of repetition. The time of repetition in performance was on my mind â€“ but so was the desire to imbue my choreography with structure as the lasting architecture for my ideas. These works made me the artist I am, and I made them to be forever young, to continue to be repeated again.
I clamor to be among my contemporaries at Dia: Beacon.