Trisha Brown died at the age of eighty on Saturday, March 18, but I had been mourning her for several years, ever since illness started ravaging her brilliant mind in 2011. When I began to write dance reviews for the Village Voice in the rebellious Sixties, she — one of the founding members of the boldly iconoclastic Judson Dance Theater and among the smart-as-a-whip improvisers in the Grand Union during the Seventies — taught me that if an artist said he or she was making a dance, I’d better consider it as such. In 1971, I was among those at the Whitney Museum watching her and her dancers strap themselves into harnesses and walk on two of the gallery’s white walls (Walking on the Wall), altering our perception of gravity. Then we lay down and looked at the ceiling, while she read us the names of places that we could be imagining in the world overhead (Skymap).
At the time, Brown was also experimenting with movement and form unattached to ropes or pulleys. The structure of her 1971 Accumulation was that of an old kids’ game, but with gestures rather than words: movement 1, movements 1,2; 1,2,3; 1,2,3,4; and so on. Some years later, she redefined virtuosity by performing the solo Accumulation With Talking Plus Watermotor, in which she switched back and forth between telling two stories while also moving between the gestural, in-place Accumulation and the explosively careering Watermotor.
Few geniuses have been as playful as Trisha in their art-making. When she worked her way into creating pieces for the proscenium stage instead of for lofts and public spaces, when she called upon artist friends for décor and costumes, when she finally allowed the audience to hear music rather than heavy breathing and the squeak of bare feet against the floor, she did so in very original ways. Her 1979 Glacial Decoy, for example, was performed in front of huge black-and-white projections of photos by Robert Rauschenberg, which slid across the back wall, four always visible. During the final section, the four dancers, wearing billowing white dresses (also by Rauschenberg), used more horizontal space than any given stage displayed. Periodically, a dancer would have to disappear into the wings and reappear when the pattern traveled the opposite way. And who but Brown would contest a stage’s persistent frontal image by creating, in 1994, a solo that she performed with her back to the audience and named If You Couldn’t See Me? Or recruit a local marching band to make a trip down the street outside the theater where her 1990 Foray Forêt was being danced?
Brown grew up in a forest in Aberdeen, Washington, between ocean and mountains. “Nothing about her dancing or her choreography,” I once wrote, “thrusts itself at you head on. It’s like something glimpsed between trees, influenced by tides.” When Trisha danced, movement flowed through her body, trickling here, spurting there, diverting into new channels. When she bolted into the air, it was as if a hand had plucked her up by the back and her feet had just gone along. And her choreography might set the dancers of her company glancing off or slipping past one another, intersecting in unforeseen ways. It wasn’t an idle choice for her to label her dances of the early Eighties “unstable molecular structures.”
Anyone watching her at work, as I did in a theater in Angers, France, in 1989, and in her company’s bright studio in far-west Manhattan in 1996, would have been amazed by the ways in which she and her superb dancers labored together on choreography. In Angers, the dancers working on the gorgeous Foray Forêt already knew a number of phrases and could respond to Trisha’s suggestions for one of them to jump, say, from the middle of one phrase to a move near the end of another, while a dancer nearby could briefly drop into unison with that person, then break away into something else. It was like seeing someone assemble a building out of flying bricks. In New York, Trisha might get up and improvise something startling, ask the dancers to show her what she had done, and then pick the version she liked best.
In 1986, she choreographed Lina Wertmüller’s production of Bizet’s opera Carmen for the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples. That experience, she later told me, had whetted her appetite for collaborating not just with composers as adventurous as she, but with dead ones. She taught herself baroque polyphonic composition and, undaunted, set her 55-minute M.O. (1995) to the thematically linked keyboard canons and fugues of J.S. Bach’s Musical Offering. The dancers didn’t mirror melodies; they created analogous structures.
Choreographing and directing Claudio Monteverdi’s opera Orfeo in 1998 for the Théâtre Royale de la Monnaie in Brussels, she bravely costumed dancers and singers alike and mingled them. I would love to have seen how she and her company members (as familiar with the music as she) persuaded singers to venture into new realms. How did she, four years later, interweave three of her dancers and the splendid British baritone Simon Keenlyside in Franz Schubert’s mournful song cycle, Winterreise? He sang leaning back onto dancers’ upraised feet; he sang an entire aria lying on the bed into which they had formed themselves.
The marvel of Trisha Brown has always been, for me, the wit and ebullience with which she tackled both new ideas and familiar art, without ever ceding her essential values. Every project she tackled nudged our brains awake. In how long does the subject linger on the edge of the volume… (2005), sensors attached to the dancers triggered both the score and the projected motion capture images. In the 2007 I love my robots, two remotely controlled wooden poles moved among the dancers, rocking in bowls on small, wheeled platforms.
Two final works from 2011 give a clue to this astonishing dance artist who messed with our eyes and taught us to see space and time differently. In Les Yeux et l’ame (excerpted from her choreography for Rameau’s Pigmalion), her patterns were elaborately laid out, as if the dance were an eighteenth-century garden with a breeze wanting to muss it. As for I’m going to toss my arms — if you catch them they’re yours (2011), you can imagine it, right?
Her death leaves many bereaved, not least her still-busy company. The visual artists, lighting designers, costume designers, dancers, singers, and stagehands who adored collaborating with her will mourn. So will all of us around the world who’ve been illumined by her work.