Trisha Brown in
conversation with critic Joan Acocella
by Ann Murphy
We all take for granted that Isadora Duncan was from the West—she lived first in San Francisco and then in Oakland. And we know that Martha Graham spent an important part of her girlhood in Santa Barbara dancing on sand dunes at the edge of the ocean. But we forget that they ran ahead of Jose Limon and Lester Horton from Los Angeles, Merce Cunningham from Centralia, Washington, Twyla Tharp out of the desert of Southern California, Yvonne Rainer from San Francisco, Mark Morris, Seattle, and Trisha Brown from Aberdeen, Washington, which is at the mouth of the enchanted Olympic Peninsula.
It was this Western link among so many important dance mavericks that seemed most salient last Thursday as dance critic Joan Acocella (herself a California native), interviewed Trisha Brown in the Avenali Lecture Series at UC Berkeley. Trisha Brown’s dances contend with a natural order distinct from the corsetless freedoms of Duncan, or the tidal contractions and releases of Graham. Nevertheless, her aesthetic of wild softness seems shaped in a fundamental way by the Western landscape that surrounded her growing up and corresponds to the temperament of the Pacific Northwest, with its cool mist, incessant rains and moody beauty. Ironically her movement style comes close to something called Brownian movement, discovered by scientist Robert Brown in 1927 in which microscopic particles are acted upon and made to move in irregular ways by molecules of the gas or liquid that hold them. Without knowing about Brownian movement, Trisha Brown, now 68, appears to have intuited it: her dancers appear buffeted by the atmosphere on stage, their bodies zigzagging through space in quixotic, nonlinear fashion. It is an easy leap to think of tree spores squiggled by the moisture of the Olympic National Forest, across the street from where Brown grew up.
Brown graduated from Mills College in 1958, went north to Reed College to start a dance department where she concentrated on improvistation, then returned to the Bay Area to work with Anna Halprin on her deck in Marin. In 1960 she dashed off to New York, as did conceptual artist Bob Morris, his then wife and dancer Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer, all of whom Brown was to work with at Judson.
The two women—Brown girlishly lank, brainy, ardent and tersely independen; Acocella, ironic, passionate and unpretentiously smart—talked for an hour. Here is what I was able to jot down from their conversation.
Acocella: Growing up in Aberdeen, Washington, across the street from the Olympic National Forest—did that affect you?
Brown: My first art lesson occurred in that magical forest. I was kept out of school because of childhood illness and told to stay out in the sun, which was ridiculous, because it always rained. But I’d roam by myself in the forest and look at things, at ecosystem after ecosytem…at the way the light came through the branches and refracted as it came down through them, and I was enchanted by it.
"Trisha told me that a trillium was a flower that she had found in the woods….She said that she used to pick them in the woods, but by the time she got home they would be wilted and faded. And that’s what she thought about movement. It was wild; it was something that lived in the air." Steve Paxton in "Democracy’s Body" by Sally Banes, on Brown’s dance "Trillium" (1962)
Acocella: And then you went to Mills College in Oakland? What did you take?
Brown: Yes. I had a classic modern dance training. I came through all the steps—Martha Graham, Louis Horst * and his three classic forms. He was a very tough composition teacher. Too bad there aren’t more of them around.
Acocella: You were in New York in 1961 and met [accompanist] Bob Dunn. What did Bob Dunn give you?
Brown: He gave me assignments taken from the principles of composition that John Cage* produced. He transposed them into dance composition. I thought of it as a door that flew open and I went through. I also attended John Cage’s lectures on indeterminacy. There were about five of us. He had a stop watch, a glass of water and units of text. He would spend a minute reading two lines. And then he would turn into a speed maniac and cram 40 lines into a minute. I got the relationships in structure and it gave me my way. He was very empowering to me.
Acocella: You were a founding member of the Judson Dance Theater in the 60’s and Grand Union in the 70’s. It wasn’t just the avant garde as we think of it—it was literally experimental. What did you experiment with?
Brown: Whatever I could come up with. I was very young then. I was very into improvisation. In the early 60’s improvisation was not a respected pursuit. I met Simone Forti at a workshop in 1959 and together we made up the rules. We called it Structured Improvisation, but Louis Horst said: "It’s just turning out the light and announcing happy hour!" He had set rules that would pierce you. But the choreographer has the right to make up the rules.
I got eyehooks and put them into the wall and put rope through them and climbed the ropes. [This was the beginning of Brown’s cycle of "equipment pieces."] The idea was to make a ground of ropes with clothes threaded through them. We would dress and undress our way through there. People would come and find us suspended in an empty loft building and they didn’t know where to go to look. Gordon Mumma came prepared. He had a little flashlight to look at people walking down walls. It was called Floor of the Forest! We did things like walk down the side of a seven storey building. I argued fiercely that that was a dance. There was a lot of walking on things. At the Whitney Museum we walked on one wall then turned a corner and walked on another wall. I thought we would leave tracks, but we didn’t!"
Acocella: You have an organized mind and you tend to work in cycles. What came after the equipment pieces?
Brown: I couldn’t sustain working with equipment pieces. I had no insurance to cover accidents, and there was no support for it. I couldn’t keep asking my friends to help. I made a decision to go back into the studio—I needed to know what was an acceptable gesture after Judson. [Brown then demonstrated the accumulation of gestures—a flexed foot, as of a foot on a brake pedal, an extended thumb like a hitchhiker’s, that thumb rocking side to side, the hand reaching to pull out the clutch button and so on, from Accumulation 1971] I’d perform it six times then a gesture would change. I was always accumulating gestures then going back to the beginning.
Acocella: And you lectured while you did the accumulation?
Acocella: What cycle was next?
Brown: It was "unstable molecular structures." It’s what you see when you look through a microscope, with atoms moving around in a frenzy and bumping into each other and dropping dead. I was trying to rein in improvisation and its dazzling esprit and make it presentational. I figured when in doubt, line up, act on instinct and stay on the edge.
Acocella: What was your next cycle?
Brown: The "valiant series." It was less sweet, bouncy.
Acocella: What is the relationship between the cycles?
Brown: I’m something like a fox being chased by what people write about me. I can’t stand it when they say: "That’s what she’s doing." I’m always moving forward. They love to use S words to define what I do, like sensual, sexy….In abstraction, I wanted to know: where’s the drama, how do you keep people’s attention? You fall! My dancers fell like trees. I worked with angular geometric movement in counterpoint to this "S" stuff. I was a closet graphic artist for many years (now I’ve been outed), and this was the shape of stuff on the the body [Brown draws a diagram in the air of first a box, then a plus sign in the box, then diagonals bisecting the +.]
Acocella: Trisha you were the most successful from the Judson era to make the transition to the proscenium. "Glacial Decoy" was made for the proscenium. Why did you change? Was there something you wanted from the box?
Brown: I wanted the wider audience. It was a challenge to have more people. You might have 40 people in a museum. You have 600 in the theater. And to use pictures you need a back wall.
Acocella: Why did you start to use sets? I know you had many nice artists friends.
Brown: I knew the right person!
Brown: Right, although Rauschenberg didn’t do lighting anymore because it had become computerized. But he would call at 3 am from Japan and say "How about Howard Cossell calling out orders from stage?" I was his muse, and there was a telepathy between us.
Acocella: And your decision to use music? There’s a famous quote that says you decided to use music because you were tired of hearing the audience cough.
Brown: If you don’t deliver the audience gets very nervous and they cough. I felt very sorry for them, but I could’ve killed them. I went to Bob Ashley and I asked if he’d compose for me. I said: " Bob, I haven’t used music for my dances in a very long time." He said: "I haven’t used music for my music for a very long time."
Acocella: Why did you move into opera?
Brown: Why opera? That’s getting complicated. In opera you have another physical factor—you have the voice. "Carmen" came up three months before it was to be performed. I used all the letters I saw in flamenco and bullfighting—S curves, C curves. I was burned by opera. I loved the text, the history of it. Then I used Bach’s "Musical Offering." I taught myself Baroque composition theory. Then it led to Webern, Monteverdi, and I did a prodigous amount of research, which I loved.
On April 9th at Arizona State University Tempe, Arizona, Brown will premiere "how long does an object linger on the edge of the volume..." The company will have its New York run April 13th at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater.