Luscious and austere. Severely abstract and exuberantly physical. In her half-century long career, choreographer Trisha Brown traversed the limits of expression to create a unique and profoundly influential body of work. Which makes it an extremely big deal that the Trisha Brown Dance Company is performing at the ICA Miami this week, their first time in Miami since 1990. (When the Miami Light Project presented them in the Robert Rauschenberg-designed Astral Convertible on the sands of Miami Beach.)
The performance is prompted in part by Brown’s two collaborations with artist Donald Judd, whose early paintings are on display at the Design District museum. Brown, who died last year at the age of 80, was a pillar of New York’s interdisciplinary avant-garde in the 1960’s and 70’s, and was part of the Judson Dance Theater, a radical, seminal performance collective that challenged every parameter of what dance was and where it could take place.
Early on she presented her work mostly in museums and galleries. And she collaborated with artists who became famous, like Judd, Rauschenberg (a Judson member) and Laurie Anderson. All this has helped make the Trisha Brown Dance Company a particularly good fit for a visual art world where “time-based” art has become popular. The troupe’s recent itinerary is filled with top exhibition spaces, including performances at L.A.’s Broad and Getty museums and New York’s MOMA of In Plain Site, a changing program of dances and excerpts designed to be adaptable to museums, parks and the like.
“Brown was a seminal figure in conceptual art and modern dance and her work has inspired generations of dancers and choreographers,” said ICA artistic director Alex Gartenfeld in a statement. “She was also a collaborator of artist Donald Judd, so presenting In Plain Site alongside our Donald Judd: Paintings exhibition… is an exciting juxtaposition that highlights multiple dialogues between the performing and visual arts.”
But that’s not all.
Trisha Brown did two things in dance before and unlike any other dance artist. Long, long before site-specific performances, interventions or flash mobs became trendy, Brown put dancers on top of buildings in Soho (53 Wooster to 381 Lafayette, in case you’d like to map it), in 1971’s Roof Piece. For 1970’s Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (re-staged at numerous museums) she did just that – creating a vertiginous confrontation with gravity, the vertical becoming a floor, the world turned upside down. In Walking on a Wall she had dancers do just that inside the Whitney. She took questions like: What makes dance, dance? Is raising your arm dancing? Is walking? What about if you do it outside a theater? How do we see people moving, and how does that change the way we see everything? – to a new, exhilarating, world-disorienting place.
“She felt sorry for spaces that weren’t center stage— the ceiling, walls, corners, and wing space. Not to mention trees, lakes, and firehouses,” Wendy Perron, a choreographer turned critic, wrote in Dance Magazine. “She caused a revolution by… turning to the spaces that other dance-makers don’t.”
After drilling down to minimalism, and presenting everywhere but theaters, Brown went in the opposite direction at the end of the 70’s. She began creating an incredibly rich, idiosyncratic palette of movement, born of her loose-limbed body and intense self-awareness. Swinging arms would twist the body around and into the air, legs would snake unexpectedly outwards, a subtle shift in weight would lead to a startling drop and recovery. Her movement was slippery, slithery, utterly human and utterly strange. Though it often looked improvised, or at least relaxed, her choreography was exactingly precise about everything from the shape of a hand or the angle of a leg to the energy and impulse that guided every movement.
“She was so interested in re-defining dance and its vocabulary, and working with these rigorous structures,” said Carolyn Lucas, the co-director of TBDC, from the company’s studios in New York. Lucas joined Brown’s troupe in 1984, and soon became rehearsal, and then choreographic assistant, an intimate enabler of Brown’s process.
“She had an amazing facility, she moved very sequentially and multi-directionally,” Lucas says. But Brown’s natural fluidity was undergirded by years of rigorous experimentation. “She did her homework,” Lucas says. “There’s an improvisational spirit in the work but it’s really structured.”
“As a director she was always completely in control. But she was smart enough to have a brilliant idea but not necessarily dictate how it was going to play out. There were these places where she let kinetic instinct play out. But she was quite clever in directing things so that they yielded her ideas. She was confident and secure enough to see how someone else would take over her ideas. If you get someone into the air, how will they get down?”
In the early 80’s Brown built a small ensemble that became fantastically eloquent instruments for the new kind of dancing she was making. (That’s them in the blue and green costumed promotional photo for the ICA show, in Son of Gone Fishin, one of her Judd collaborations. Elegant, aloof Eva Karczag is on the left; intense virtuoso Stephen Petronio, now a renowned choreographer in his own right, in a cross-body fling; softly introspective Vicki (Vick) Schick; Randy Warshaw, who grew up in Coconut Grove, in front; Diane Madden, now co-director with Lucas, barely visible at the back.)
I know them because I discovered Brown, and her work and company then, when I was dancing downtown. I took workshops with the dancers, and regular classes with Stephen. As relaxed as the style looked, it was mind-bogglingly difficult. I remember learning a movement sequence in one class, and then being asked to reverse it – to do it backwards, exactly re-tracing each flowing arm and shift of weight as if you were on a film strip in reverse. It was a simultaneous mind-and-body-enigma the likes of which I’d never encountered before or since. The dancers said it got easier the more you did it, but I never got that far.
Like Merce, Trisha was a first-name-only star. She was a singularly admired figure in the downtown and post-modern dance world, one who combined two key qualities in post-modernism: conceptual rigor and total individuality. Her loose, casual-looking, elevated-normal style of dancing was tremendously influential. She went on to a rare combination of popular and revered, her company performing at world-class venues, receiving just about every major honor in the arts world (including being the first woman to win a MacArthur ‘Genuis’ Award in 1991.) She made her last dance in 2011.
After age (and age-induced dementia) sent Brown into retirement in 2013, Madden and Lucas took over, and have done a singularly fine job of maintaining her choreography, her style, and the company’s presence through the In Plain Site performances, educational programs and reconstructions, an archive, and even theater shows.
“It’s not easy for something so simple to be so resonant and timeless, and have a very human quality,” says Lucas. “[Brown’s dances] are like gems in a way. We’re lucky to have a job of placing them in a space.”
The ICA program, which takes place on an empty third floor gallery, will include the 2002 Geometry of Quiet, and excerpts from a number of early 70’s pieces. They include Line Up, a structured improvisation; Sticks, where rolling dancers manipulate sticks; and the solo Accumulation, a hypnotically growing sequence of movement.
They’ll also do 1976’s Solo Olos, an excellent example of Brown’s structural genius. Lucas describes it as a dance phrase that goes forward and then backwards, with “gates” where one dancer calls out instructions like “branch” or “reverse” to individual performers. The dance gets deconstructed, then reconstructed to end the way it started; each performance is like a puzzle where the dancer/caller has to figure out a new solution.
“It’s brilliant, incredibly rigorous, so specific,” says Lucas. “The caller comes up with a different dance every time, depending on how she calls it. She gets to make a mess of everything and then put it back together.”
The Trisha Brown Dance Company performs at 6:30pm Thursday, 1pm and 6:30 Friday, and 1pm Saturday at ICA Miami, 61 NE 41st St., Miami, 33137, 305-901-5272. Tickets $20, or $10 for ICA members, at icamiami.org.