Inside the “Year of Trisha”

Lightsey Darst takes us behind the scenes of the "Year of Trisha" going on now at the Walker Art Center with a primer on the surprisingly accessible work of dance virtuoso, Trisha Brown.

Trisha Brown drawing
Present Tense

2008 IS TO BE THE “YEAR OF TRISHA” AT THE WALKER—with performances, screenings, exhibitions, and talks about the work of American choreographer Trisha Brown, peaking with three big events in April. When I found out about it, I realized this series solved a problem that had been nagging me for months: what artist I would choose for my “Life in Art” class at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

At MCAD, as at some other schools, the research writing portion of composition is taught in specialized sections. Each MCAD section (called “A Life in Art”) is based on the career and work of one artist (working in any genre). The thing is, as a teacher, it’s enormously difficult to pick an artist. You need someone the students can sit with for an entire semester, someone well-documented, someone interesting, someone not hopelessly difficult, someone you’re interested in yourself—and of course you have to dance around the artists already “taken” by other faculty. But Trisha Brown fits all those requirements. Best of all, the “Year of Trisha” provides so many opportunities for the students to see her work in action, from a University of Minnesota Dance Program variation of her 1983 work Set and Reset in February to a classroom visit from Brown herself in April.

It wasn’t until the beginning of the semester, in January, that I realized what I’d let myself in for: how would I teach a bunch of college freshmen, most with no background in dance, about a choreographer who’s been called “the high priestess of postmodern dance”?

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried—and neither do you, if you’re new to Brown’s work. George Balanchine or Martha Graham would have been real challenges, requiring an background education on centuries of dance history. But Trisha Brown turns out to be one of easiest choreographers to understand for anyone who’s already taken in some basic ideas about modern art—no special dance background necessary. Before I explain why, let’s cover those basic ideas about modern art:
     1. The artwork need not contain a single meaning or message; i.e., there may be nothing to “get”.
     2. The artwork need not follow any rules or forms laid down in the past; the artwork can do, be, and look like anything.

Got those? When Trisha Brown moved to New York in the early 1960s, those ideas were already well-established, and others were moving in—ideas about the primacy of performance, of actual happening in front of other people, ideas about the “task” of art, about art as work, and ideas about the dissolution of artistic authority, of chance and lack of control. But that’s another essay. Let’s get back to Brown. What makes her so easy to understand?

Brown is an experimenter. But I don’t just mean that she tries out new dance ideas. In fact, she’s moved over time to incorporate older dance ideas into her pieces, like dancing with music. What I mean to suggest is that she works according to an almost scientific model: you can picture her creations as if they were the results of classic laboratory experiments, for which she’s isolating one variable at a time, combining them only when she’s mastered their effects. Or you can use another metaphor: picture choreography (or any art form) as a room with many doors. The doors are labeled improvisation, steps, structure, virtuosity, proscenium stage, costumes, music, emotion, etc—all the possible elements of a dance.

What makes her career especially intelligible is that Brown, unlike most artists, starts with all the doors closed. In the anti-dance scene of the early ’60s, dance was not scripted flow or trained virtuosity, but merely consisted of the movements arising from sometimes absurd physical tasks. Brown started there—no costumes, no music, no emotion, no imposed structure, no “steps”—and then, unlike many of her contemporaries, she began opening the doors of all those dance options, one at a time. Watching Brown’s work over time, you can almost keep score of which doors she’s broached in sequence through the years. And although she sometimes changes her approach, she never backtracks away from doors once she’s opened them: she is always moving forward, towards more possibility.

Brown’s own way of phrasing this is to say that she works in cycles. Coming out of the freewheeling sixties, she began with the Equipment Cycle series. Sample work, Leaning Duets, 1970: pairs of people lean away from each other, each holding one side of a looped rope. They try to walk forward on a street in Soho. That’s the entire work—or the entire choreography, anyway, because the work takes place in the falling, hissing, frantic arm-waving, and other serendipitous movements resulting from this not-so-easy task. What dance doors does Brown have open? Not too many. She’s mainly letting movement happen: What is movement? Where does it arise? What does it do to movers and audience? Another sample work: Man Walking Down the Side of a Building, 1970. Exactly what it sounds like: the man’s held up by a rappelling system, but he stands horizontal to the building, swinging his arms as if he were upright. As far as dance is concerned, she’s still not calling on many of the known resources of the art form—no costumes, no music, using just a simple and overt structure. But look how her exploration has grown: she’s discovered that equipment plus movement can add up to illusion. Not a theatrical illusion, but one the audience can see right through—and yet the simplicity of the illusion is its power. Brown has played with such simple illusions many times since, from the onstage/offstage flirting of Set and Reset (1983) to a solo in which the dancer never faces the audience (If You Couldn’t See Me, 1994). You can see that she gets a lot of mileage out of each creative door that she opens.

With her Mathematical Cycle of the mid-seventies, Brown explored composition, starting with the absolute simplest form she could imagine: do one step, repeat it, add a new step, repeat the result, add another step, and so on. This 1, 1 2, 1 2 3 structure is easy for audiences to grasp and enjoy. You watch, you figure it out, you begin to anticipate your favorite moves, you wonder what she’s going to add next—it’s lulling, but also surprising. And this brings up a key point. Even though, at this time, Brown wasn’t working with overt emotion in her work, she was already seeing how the various structural elements of a dance do create emotion in audiences. In Brown’s work, closed creative doors are never nullities, but always felt possibilities.

Over time, as Brown opened more doors, her explorations became harder to see from the outside. Watching the stunning Newark (1987) or anything else from the strenuous “pure dance” Valiant Cycle, only Brown scholars will be able to chuckle, “Ha! I see what she’s up to!”—an experience available to anyone seeing the delightful Spanish Dance (1973). Still, all Brown’s work glows with experimental vigor: you know she’s up to something specific, even if you can’t always explain just what that is. And following Brown through her cycles is an education in the nearly endless possibilities available to choreographic thought. Consider that she didn’t choreograph to music (as opposed to choreographing with music) until 1995, when she was nearly sixty and had been creating work for more than thirty years, and you’ll get some sense of both Brown’s nearly scientific thoroughness and the vast resources of dance. Brown herself refers to the first thirty or so years of her working career as “the long haul of my apprenticeship in choreography”; that is, long after others considered her an acclaimed master, she still thought of herself as a student.

Brown hasn’t, so far as I’ve seen, given a name to her current cycle. She says her life’s been “impossible” since 1998, when she began showing her visual work along with directing opera, maintaining repertory, and choreographing for her company, so perhaps she’s in her “Impossible Cycle”. Or maybe, now that her apprenticeship’s over, she’s done with cycles—all the doors are open, all the variables are in her grasp. But I doubt that’s true. It’s Brown’s nature to experiment, to question. If there are no more doors to open, Brown will grab a hammer.

But enough (for now) of inner workings. What can you see at the “Year of Trisha”? On April 17 (at 7 pm) Brown opens the Walker’s exhibition of her drawings with a live dance-drawing, followed by a reception. Brown is a seamless mover, with such a riverine flow through her body you’ll think she’s never felt tension. She’s one of the great dancers of the century, and she’s on the verge of retiring from performance. Her drawings, like her dance, can be elegant or quirky, but are always devoted to the flow of energy.

On April 22 (at 7pm) Brown discusses her work with Walker performing arts curator Philip Bither. This should educate you about the Walker’s long-standing relationship with Brown and prep you for April’s big event, the April 25 Trisha Brown Dance Company concert at Northrop Auditorium. This concert features three newer works (1991’s Foray Forêt, 2003’s Present Tense, and 2007’s I love my robots). My MCAD students, who by now have seen a lot of Brown’s work, have some advice for you on how to approach it: “Go in with a sense of humor,” they suggest; Brown is often funny. “Look at it and take it as it is”: don’t look for what’s not there or for the creative options Brown’s walled off for the moment; instead, see what she’s doing with what’s there. There’s a lot going on in the Trisha-universe, but you won’t see it if you don’t start with an open mind.

A little later this year, on July 5, the Trisha Brown Dance Company returns to perform four works from Brown’s early years outside the Walker, including Man Walking Down the Side of a Building and Spanish Dance. This is required viewing. It’s not the seventies anymore, and Brown’s moved beyond the primary choices she was making in these dances, but these early works remain a nonpareil lesson in artistic opportunity. And optimism: we should all charge into our chosen fields with the sense of possibility Brown brought to dance.

Back to my MCAD class. One purpose of the “Life in Art” class is to educate students about the sorts of lives that artists have—their formative experiences, their habits, their working methods, the relationship between life and art. Sometimes this is depressing or infuriating. The class studying Picasso is seeing how early brilliance can give an artist a sadly swelled head, while the class studying Mary Shelley is learning about the short unhappy life of a woman who fell prey to male Romanticism. But Brown is more like W. B. Yeats—an artist whose long life has supported a continually evolving creativity. How does Brown (now in her early seventies) do it? By never resting on her laurels, never resting on one way of making and thinking about art; also by keeping “Trisha” separate from the aesthetic consciousness that creates her work, such that she can watch, laugh at, critique, and learn from herself. In a conversation with Joyce Morgenroth, Brown relates that she propelled herself into directing opera by asking, “What haven’t you done yet, girl?” It’s a question she never tires of asking—or finding answers for.

About the writer: Lightsey Darst writes on dance for Mpls/St Paul magazine and is also a poet and editor of’s What Light: This Week’s Poem publication project.

What: Trisha Brown: So That the Audience Does Not Know Whether I Have Stopped Dancing
Where: Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN
When: Thursday, April 17 (pre-exhibition reception begins at 7 pm);
Trisha Brown Dance Company presents: Present Tense, Foray Forêt, and I love my robots on April 25 at 8 pm.
Tickets: Visit the Walker Art Center website for ticketing information on specific events.