Remembering the choreographer who forever changed the landscape of art and dance
One of the most acclaimed and influential choreographers and dancers of our time, Trisha Brown forever changed the landscape of art and dance. Her boundary-defying interdisciplinary creativity took shape within the visual art matrix of the 1960s and 1970s. Over 50 years of ceaseless productivity she created 100 choreographies, including one ballet; directed six operas; and realized a body of drawings that have been exhibited in, and collected by, numerous international museums.
A pioneering settler in downtown New York’s SoHo, Brown joined Robert Dunn’s 1961 choreographic composition workshop, where John Cage’s compositional methods were transmitted to choreographers. The class’s recitals gave birth to Judson Dance Theater, of which Brown was a founding member. Expanding the physical behaviours that qualify as dance, she introduced tasks, everyday movement, and improvisation to choreography.
In 1970, she established the Trisha Brown Dance Company, and adopted her loft-residence as the site for her first self-produced programme: ‘Dances in and Around 80 Wooster Street.’ Inspired by John Cage’s notion of ‘non-intention,’ Brown set out to invent ‘the perfect dance machine’ – a phrase echoing with Sol LeWitt’s definition of Conceptual art, where the idea is the machine for a work’s making. In her building’s inner courtyard Brown presented Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (1970), the most famous of her ‘Equipment Dances’ (1970–71), in which she explored gravity and perception. Making architecture the basis for a choreographic score, it featured a dancer poised perpendicular to the ground, promenading down the façade of a seven-story building: an ordinary act became a daring feat of athleticism and physical memory.
Brown introduced a new rigour and systematicity to her ‘Accumulations’ (1971-1973). In these dances, all composed through impersonal, non-compositional mathematical sequences – closely related to the work of minimal artists of her generation – Brown originated her abstract movement language, one of her singular achievements. Summarizing her principles in her ‘Pure Movement’ manifesto (1975), she announced her artistic signature as an abstract artist through the serial production of approximately 16 accumulating dances, devised for presentation in art galleries, international exhibitions and museums. The current ubiquity of choreography in the museum is unthinkable apart from the exemplary model that Brown established.
Often called a ‘brainy’ choreographer Brown revolutionized her art form through her remarkable ability to represent how the mind and body together participate in the making, performing and watching of dancing. In 1978, she began to source movement from a place of subjectivity: that of her body’s extraordinary, idiosyncratic, sensuous virtuosity. This mature movement vocabulary – along with new methods that she and her dancers used to train their bodies – are among her most important legacies for international dance practice. With what she named ‘memorized improvisation,’ Brown captured elusive, on-the-fly dancing and fixed it as choreography, an approach intrinsic to her work for the entirety of her career.
In 1979, Brown transitioned from performing in non-traditional and art world settings to working within a framework traditionally associated with dance – the proscenium stage. With this decision she invited her contemporaries to contribute sets and costumes, as well as sound scores to her choreography, but it was always Brown who set the parameters of each unique dialogue at the outset. Identifying collaboration as a ‘perilous evolution of intentions’, she worked hand in glove with artists including Vija Celmins, Nancy Graves, Donald Judd, Elizabeth Murray, Fujiko Nakaya, Robert Rauschenberg and Terry Winters, and with composers Robert Ashley, Laurie Anderson, Alvin Curran, Dave Douglas, Salvatore Sciarrino, and Peter Zummo. An ongoing concern in her theatrical productions was the theme of visibility and invisibility.
Brown’s best-loved work, Set and Reset (1983) – for which Rauschenberg provided the sets and costumes, and Laurie Anderson the score – brought new heights of fame. Her work entered the international dance touring circuit. In the 1980s her company regularly appeared at London’s Sadler’s Wells and the Dance Umbrella festival, performing worldwide in far-flung destinations including Shanghai and Moscow. Her choreographies continued to unfold in a serial fashion: ‘The Unstable Molecular Structure Cycle’ (1980–83) was followed by the ‘Valiant Cycle’ (1985–91); the ‘Back to Zero Cycle’ (1990–94); and the ‘Music Cycle’, (1995–96) – which ultimately lead her to direct her first opera in 1998 at the invitation of Bernard Fouccroulle of Brussel’s Théâtre Royale de la Monnaie: Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607).
The first woman choreographer to receive the coveted MacArthur ‘genius’ grant (in 1991) Brown was honoured with nearly every award available to contemporary choreographers. Her meticulously conceptual working process – so impactful for decades of artists working in her wake – followed a deliberately evolutionary trajectory. As she explained, ‘What begins as an innermost vision of dancing or a dance is let out over the years in the form of “dare I do this?” and so the sum of my career equals a series of yesses.’
Susan Rosenberg, is a writer, Director of the MA Program in Museum Administration at St John’ University, New York, and Consulting Historical Scholar at the Trisha Brown Dance Company. Her book Trisha Brown: Choreography as Visual Art was published by Wesleyan University Press in 2016.