Theater archives

The Wall Walker: Forty Years of Challenges From Trisha Brown


Trisha Brown has always been intrigued by how we see. A founding member of the radical Judson Dance Theater, she began in the late 1960s to tease our perceptions of time, space, and bodies. For the year-long 40th celebration of the Trisha Brown Dance Company, she has revived some of her early, witty, narrowly focused “equipment pieces,” and is also showing her later dances that make our eyes fly around, tracking dancers in flux.

Last April, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, she reconstructed her 1968 Planes, in which three women slowly and smoothly climb up and down a “wall.” Depending on the film images playing over them, we can visualize them flying away from us or falling toward us. In Glacial Decoy (1979), a long horizontal strip of dancing that keeps disappearing off the stage at one side or the other makes us imagine we’re only seeing part of a larger virtual design.

In the most recent of several scheduled events at Dia:Beacon, Brown elaborated on her minute-long 1974 Spiral; 10 dancers, roped and harnessed, mounted the huge gallery’s 10 columns via ladders and walked around them in descending spiral paths until they reached the floor—first in unison, then in canon. When the company returns to Dia:Beacon on May 1, she plans (weather permitting) to send some of her intrepid dancers out onto the Hudson River to perform her vintage Raft Piece. (I think it’d look fine through a light rain.) And from September 30 through October 3, after TBDC comes home from engagements in France, it will show more of Brown’s provocative early pieces at the Whitney, on whose gallery walls she walked in 1971.

The company’s recent season at the Baryshnikov Arts Center’s Howard Gilman Performance Space make us aware of what we can’t perceive. In Brown’s solo If you couldn’t see me (1994), Leah Morrison dances with her back to the audience. Her costume, a white dress that bares her upper back, is part of the late Robert Rauschenberg’s visual and muted sound design. The lighting (by Spencer Brown with Rauschenberg) points up the beauties of the spine.

Morrison must make an effort to keep her face away from us. When she swings her right leg across her body and to the left, the torque is extreme. Yet the overall effect is of a frisky, inquisitive sort of fluidity as if, upstage, there’s an invisible audience she’s performing for. We see her all right, but there’s much still to know. (When the company opens the Bard SummerScape festival, July 8 through 11, the program will include 1995’s You can see us, the duet version with one performer facing the spectators, which further develops the riddle of what “seeing” means.)

The four dancers in Opal Loop/Cloud Installation #72503 often fade—even vanish—into the intermittent surges of water fog deployed from above in the installation by visual artist Fujiko Nakaya. Beverly Emmons’s beautiful lighting can make the mist glow like storm clouds, evoke a foggy-day walk on the beach, or glance off the dancers as they lope and twist through its beams. Judith Shea’s costumes emphasize that the four usually work as individuals, intent on their own slippery affairs. Tamara Riewe’s diaphanous white pants and top suggest wisps of mist; Laurel Tentindo’s outfit is made of a heavier dark, greenish-gray fabric; Nicholas Strafaccia wears black, with a loose, sleeveless top; Samuel von Wentz’s shiny golden unitard could refer to the rays of light.

Premiered in 1980, in a deep, narrow, shabby Soho loft, Opal Loop marked the first appearance of a man (Stephen Petronio) in Brown’s company. It also marked the budding of the intricate movement and compositional style that reached an apogee of complexity in Brown’s 1983 Set and Reset. You feel gentle currents running through the dancers’ bodies, animating the roll of a shoulder, the twist of a hip, the upward fling of a leg, a spring into the air—either in sequence or, more likely, nearly simultaneously. The only sounds in Opal Loop are the occasional hiss of the spigots as they reinvigorate the fog and the springy touch of feet on the floor. The performers seem deliciously sensitive to the texture of the air as they slip past one another, almost collide, and shy away. Occasionally, two will slide briefly into unison; then one of them unobtrusively dissolves the partnership and drops into someone else’s phrase. It’s like paying visits without bothering to ring the doorbell. In one of the more restful viewing moments, Strafaccia and Riewe dance as partners, while—bookending them at some distance away—von Wentz echoes Strafaccia and Tentindo echoes Riewe, embracing or leaning on air.

Works by Brown don’t just challenge our perceptions; they expand our minds and untether our spirits.