Devising a chaotic world for dance to live in
For almost 50 years, Trisha Brown’s dances have been seen in New York lofts, on the stages of the world’s greatest opera houses, or on the sides of buildings. It’s difficult to present an overview of that career in one night, but her company’s programme at the Dublin Dance Festival is probably as close as you’ll get.
Included are early works Accumulation and Spanish Dance, created in the early 1970s, when her fledgling company was causing quite a stir in SoHo by finding alternative performance spaces such as rooftops and walls of buildings. Her operatic output is represented by excepts from her version of Rameau’s Pygmalion, which she created in 2010, while her investigations of unconscious movement are embodied in For MG: The Movie. And then there’s Set and Reset, a postmodern classic that is on the French baccalaureate curriculum and one of her finest collaborations with artist Robert Rauschenberg.
“I’ve said that my collaboration with Bob is my best dance,” she says. “Bob would call in the middle of the night with a new idea. We would talk all night, sometimes while one or the other of us was hosting a dinner party, until we solidified the concept for a new work.”
And the secret of the success? “I’ve said before that I make order out of chaos, Bob makes chaos out of order, and where we meet is chaos. Together, we devised a wonderfully chaotic world for my dances to live in. What could be better than that?”
By the late 1970s, Brown decided that she wanted to move from non-theatre spaces on to the proscenium stage, but not for aesthetic reasons. “I began making work for the traditional stage when my son, Adam, announced at a very young age that he planned to go to college. I thought, I must find a way to deliver my work to a larger audience.”
New possibilities soon became evident. Rather than being confined to the perimeter of the stage, the dancers could disappear and reappear from the wings and create the impression of an infinite number of dancers.
“I play with the boundaries more often than not in my dances, manipulating the audience perception of onstage and off.”
Set and Reset, with music by Laurie Anderson, belongs to a cycle of work called Unstable Molecular Structures, which established Brown’s highly fluid – but highly formal – geometrical style.
“Unstable Molecular Structure refers both to the silky, sexy, sensuous movement and the structure of the dances themselves,” Brown says. She was working with a system of capturing and repeating dance phrases that she had improvised with her dancers. “That process gave way to an unstable molecular structure, meaning that each one of us as a dancer was on the same phrase, but we were acting like independent molecules and were overlaying each other with the same material. I saw it as a layered phrase of shared impulses.”
As someone who worked with such fluid structures, she surprised many when she began directing and choreographing operas. For Brown, the music’s fixed structure and conventions weren’t problematic.
“I began working intensely with music in 1995 [with MO set to Bach’s Musical Offering]. Relying on the music is sort of cheating. Music makes us want to dance. So the dance has to find another impulse, a purpose on its own that interplays with the music.”
Instead she faced a more practical issue: teach the singers to dance.
“I didn’t want to create operas where the singers never move. At first, this was challenging. My entire company took on the task of assisting the singers to feel the movement, allowing it to slowly sink into their bones.”
These days a combination of her artistic reputation and more open-minded singers means this is no longer the case. “In my last operatic work, Pygmalion, I was happy to find that such talented singers had sought out this project. They wanted to move.”
Her reputation extends beyond artistic circles. She has a string of honorary doctorates, has received the French Benois de la Danse prize for lifetime achievement (it is normally reserved for ballet artists), was the first woman choreographer to receive the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and was made a Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government.
Rather than sit back on her success, her artistic curiosity remains strong. She has a growing reputation as a visual artist and her drawings have featured in major galleries worldwide and the Venice Biennale.
“In college, I didn’t know whether I wanted to study visual art or dance. I lived between those two places until I gravitated toward dance, but I’ve always continued to draw. Many of my choreographies contain drawings, like sketches of movement that I’ve made with my dancers.
“Since I first began making work in New York, I’ve thought about it as Art, with an upper case A. I was thinking about dance and time and performance as an Art action. Not visual art or dance art. Just Art.”