Trisha Brown, choreographer of the postmodern

Phillipa Rothfield: Melbourne International Arts Festival

Trisha Brown Dance Company, Newark (Pure Dance Program)

Trisha Brown Dance Company, Newark (Pure Dance Program)

Trisha Brown Dance Company, Newark (Pure Dance Program)

A FIELD OF DANCE, SUCH AS POSTMODERN DANCE, IS AN ECOSYSTEM. IT EXISTS IN THE EVERYDAY LIVES OF ITS DANCERS, IN THE BODY OF THE CHOREOGRAPHER, IN THE STUDIO SPACES IN WHICH IT IS ARTICULATED AND KEPT ALIVE, AND IN THE CULTURAL AND SOCIAL MILIEU IN WHICH IT THRIVES. IT IS NOT SOMETHING THAT CAN SIMPLY BE PRESERVED BY FIAT. THIS IS A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN DANCE AND THE VISUAL ARTS. DANCE STAYS ALIVE IN THE BODY OF THE DANCER. THIS MAKES THE HISTORICAL RECONSTRUCTION OF WORK A KIND OF PROBLEM, FOR THE DANCER AND FOR THE AUDIENCE, ESPECIALLY IF THERE HAS BEEN A BREAK IN THE CONTINUITY OF ITS TRANSMISSION.

The Trisha Brown Dance Company has been making and showing work since the 1970s. Although Brown has herself recently retired, the company continues to show work and maintain its repertoire. A certain lineage has been preserved from Brown, the choreographer, through her key dancers and towards the current company line-up. The question of transmission, from body to body, is a rich and complex process however. It’s not just a question of learning the steps. Something also changes in the passage of time. This was quite evident in the performance of Trisha Brown’s signature solo, Watermotor (1978). Although we must rely on archival footage of early performances by Brown, there was a looseness in her hips and a fluidity in her spine that was not so palpable in Neal Beasley’s dancing. Perhaps it was there but didn’t translate in the proscenium arch context of the Victorian Arts Centre, as distinct from its earlier studio incarnations. The performative intimacy of early postmodern dance fosters a greater kinaesthetic empathy on the part of the spectator.

Early Works

This was presumably why the company chose to show its Early Works program in the North Melbourne Meat Market. This was a good idea. There were no fixed seats. The audience was free to roam. We could stand close by, organise our own bodies in relation to the work and find our own solution to the shifting location of the pieces. Many of these short works were puzzles, calling for corporeal solutions. For example, a number of dances involved long sticks which formed an inflexible meeting point and contrast with the body’s softness and mobility. Dancers had to mould their bodies, maintain contact through the wood, balance and transport the sticks. They had to keep their bodies in play, utterly mobile according to the changing demands of the situation. One of the features of these stick dances was the possibility of failure; through loss of contact with the wood or dropping the stick. The visibility of failure, explicitly acknowledged by the performers, opened up a sense of the real time task of the dancing, of the task itself as producing a new kind of virtuosity and visibility. We see the thinking, the puzzle-solving decisions made in the flux of time, new modes of (kin)aesthetic value that emerged from this period of experimentation and innovation.

Pure Movement

The Pure Movement program, performed at the Victorian Arts Centre, was a different kind of animal: visceral, sensual, rhythmically complex, physically demanding though equally gratifying. The Melbourne audience loved these works and rightly so. The dancing was strong and soft in turns, requiring the force to raise a leg, yet also to achieve softness in the torso. The qualitative shift between muscularity and release requires a certain kind of virtuosity, one which can manage differences in the body in quick succession.

Trisha Brown Dance Company, Son of Gone Fishin' (Pure Movement program)

Trisha Brown Dance Company, Son of Gone Fishin’ (Pure Movement program)

Trisha Brown Dance Company, Son of Gone Fishin’ (Pure Movement program)

Brown also has a distinctive way of crossing space, without any show of effort, eating space in the blink of an eye, yielding to fall with gravity, pick up the fall and reorient it. Son of Gone Fishin’ (1981) had all these qualities. The Grecian folds of its Lurex costumes harmonised with pulsating waves running through the spine. Brown seems to have worked out when to use strength and when to release, how to access muscles and bones so as to play with gravitational force, building on that to create movement sequences embodying a wide range of kinaesthetic qualities.

Her work is relationally complex, playing with time, space, rhythm and the group itself. She also works the perceptual gestalt of the whole space of the stage, including its edges. Newark (1987) implies movement on and offstage. Action is never fully contained within the space; it flickers on the edges, is initiated offstage, producing entrances already in full flight. Les Yeux et l’âme (2011) was surprisingly lyrical, a partner to Jean-Philippe Rameau’s mythic opera. Although romantic and flowing, its rolling, counter-balances, swings, falls and lifts gave an untimely inflexion to the Baroque tenor of the music. The collective transformations of the group produced a range of life forms, inhuman collectivities, at odds with the aristocratic social order of the time, yet somehow harmonious, working new aesthetic configurations out of the old.

Trisha Brown Company has been in existence for over 40 years. Brown has been making work throughout this period, experimenting, creating, collaborating and, above all, dancing. The transmission of her rich legacy is maintained by her key dancers, Carolyn Lucas and Dianne Madden (Associate Artistic Directors), who understand her work through their bodies. The Trisha Brown Company dancers are young. They hail from a different kinaesthetic milieu than existed when Brown created many of these works. This makes for a certain kind of shift in the quality of the dancing, inevitably so. Perhaps this is why theorist Peggy Phelan claims that performance is ephemeral. The performative nature of choreography means that what we see varies according to the dancers whose bodies are themselves the work of time and place. Yet the history of the body is that which gives depth to the work. Trisha Brown created history through finding new ways to elicit movement qualities, to play and produce, compose and deconstruct. It was a great pleasure to see, at last, so many works from such a significant and beautiful choreographer.

Melbourne International Arts Festival: Trisha Brown Dance Company, Trisha Brown, From All Angles: Early Works, North Melbourne Meat Market, 22, 26 Oct; Pure Movement, Melbourne Arts Centre, 23, 25, 26 Oct

RealTime issue #124 Dec-Jan 2014 pg. 14

© Philipa Rothfield; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

5 December 2014