After graduating from Mills College in Oakland, California, studying with Anna Halprin and teaching at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, Trisha Brown moved to New York City in 1961. Instantly immersed in what was to become the post-modern phenomena of Judson Dance Theater, her movement investigations found the extraordinary in the everyday and challenged existing perceptions of what constitutes performance. In this “hot-bed of dance revolution”, Brown, along with like-minded artists, pushed the limits of choreography thereby changing modern dance forever.
Trisha Brown in Set and Reset, 1996
Photo by Chris Callis
In 1970, Brown formed her company and explored the terrain of her adoptive SoHo, creating her early dances for alternative spaces including rooftops and walls, and flirting with gravity alternately using it and defying it. In this time, Brown made the groundbreaking work, Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (1970), and Roof Piece (1971) among many others. Glacial Decoy (1979) was her first of many collaborations with Robert Rauschenberg. Opal Loop/Cloud Installation #72503 (1980) with fog designer Fujiko Nakaya was followed by Son of Gone Fishin’ (1981) with sets by Donald Judd. Set and Reset (1983) premiered at Brooklyn Academy of Music with original music by Laurie Anderson and visual design by Robert Rauschenberg. The now iconic Set and Reset completed Brown’s first fully developed cycle of work, Unstable Molecular Structures, establishing the fluid yet unpredictably geometric style that remains a hallmark of her work. Her relentlessly athletic Valiant Series followed, epitomized by the powerful Newark (1987) and Astral Convertible (1989) in which she pushed her dancers to their physical limits and began exploring gender-specific movement. Next came the elegant and mysterious Back to Zero Cycle, which includes another Rauschenberg collaboration, Foray Forêt (1990), and For M.G.: The Movie (1991) with music by Alvin Curran, in which Brown pulled back from external virtuosity to investigate unconscious movement.
Brown collaborated for the final time with Rauschenberg to create If you couldn’t see me (1994), danced entirely with her back to the audience. One year later, this piece was transformed into a duet performed by Brown and Bill T. Jones and later Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Inspired by her experience working in opera when Lina Wertmüller invited her to choreograph Carmen (1986), Brown turned her attention to classical music and opera production known as her Music Cycle. M.O. (1995), choreographed to J.S. Bach’s monumental Musical Offering, was hailed as a “masterpiece” by Anna Kisselgoff of the New York Times, who stated that Brown’s piece made “a great deal of other choreography to Bach’s music look like child’s play.”
Brown joined with new collaborators, visual artist Terry Winters and composer Dave Douglas to create El Trilogy (2000), an evening length choreography danced to the sounds and structures of today’s new jazz music full of sensuousness and marked by an unmistakable modernity. She then worked with long-time friend and artist, Elizabeth Murray to create PRESENT TENSE (2003), set to music by John Cage.
Brown again collaborated with Laurie Anderson and Jennifer Tipton to create O zlozony/O composite (2004) for three étoiles of the Paris Opera Ballet, and added Japanese artist, Kenjiro Okazaki to create the witty and sophisticated I love my robots (2007). Brown’s last work, I’m going to toss my arms- if you catch them they’re yours (2011), with collaborators Burt Barr and Alvin Curran, premiered at Théâtre National de Chaillot in Paris.
Trisha Brown has created over 100 dance works since 1961, and was the first woman choreographer to receive the coveted MacArthur Foundation Fellowship “Genius Award.” She has been awarded many other honors including five fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, two John Simon Guggenheim Fellowships, Brandeis University’s Creative Arts Medal in Dance, and she has been named a Veuve Cliquot Grand Dame. In 1988, Brown was named Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres by the government of France. In January 2000, she was promoted to Officier and in 2004, she was again elevated, this time to the level of Commandeur. She was a 1994 recipient of the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award and, at the invitation of President Bill Clinton, served on the National Council on the Arts from 1994 to 1997. In 1999, Brown received the New York State Governor’s Arts Award and, in 2003, was honored with the National Medal of Arts. She recently had the prestigious honor to serve as a Rolex Arts Initiative Mentor for 2010-11 as well as receiving the S.L.A.M. Action Maverick Award presented by Elizabeth Streb, and the Capezio Ballet Makers Dance Foundation Award in 2010. She has received numerous honorary doctorates, is an Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was awarded the 2011 New York Dance and Performance ‘Bessie’ Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2011, Brown was honored with the prestigious Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize for making an “outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.”