Pursuing the Unimaginable

Jordan Levin is a freelance writer based in Miami

A photographer is asking Trisha Brown to rearrange herself into ever smaller and more complicated knots. In her company’s airy Manhattan studio, Brown is doing her best to comply, although the tight poses could not be more unlike the fluid, free-swinging way she dances, and she looks a little puzzled as to what his interest could be in these contorted positions. Her willowy, slender body is coiled into accordion folds, one leg twisted over the other--the high priestess of contemporary dance as human pretzel.

Suddenly a look of intense concentration floats across her face. She shifts her weight, lifts a foot and then both hands from the floor, trying to balance on one tightly bent leg. She keeps falling, and trying again, the photographer and the discomfort of the position forgotten in the attempt to solve what is now an intriguing problem.

“You know,” she says, “I was an acrobatic dancer as a child. I used to be able to sit on my own head.”


It’s an essential Brown scene: the ardent investigation of physical possibilities. In more than 30 years of dance making, just such investigations have been her obsession: Where is the magic in the simple, infinite realm of the body? What shapes can it take, how far can it be pushed, and how can it be structured to make a dance?

In fact, Brown’s inquiries have yielded a great deal: the ground-breaking 25-year-old Trisha Brown Company, a revolution in movement vocabulary and, as one critic put it, in “a clear, intelligent, vision of pristine dance.”

“I have always operated out of the same set of principles,” Brown says, away from the photographer now, sitting in the studio office as bright, watery April sunlight streams through the tall windows. She considers her words carefully. “That is,” she continues, “to make an intelligent structure for the dance that will support and transport, in the clearest terms”--another pause, and a laugh--”unimaginable things.”


Stephen Petronio, who now heads his own well-regarded dance company, remembers Brown’s powerful instinct for the unimaginable while he was dancing in her company from 1979 to 1986. “Her dancing was completely over my head, but completely in my genes,” he admits over the phone from New York. “Maybe I could have dreamed it, but I had no conscious awareness that it was a possibility.”

When Petronio joined her troupe, it was at the end of its first decade of experimentation. Brown formed the company in 1970, after working with the Judson Dance Theatre, the seminal “downtown” performers’ combine that formed in the ‘60s in New York. Judson--and Brown--had an abiding interest in natural movement; in dancers who weren’t “dancers,” who were untrained in ballet or modern technique; and in breaking down traditional definitions of dance and performance. In one of her works from the Judson days--one critic called them “plain Jane solos”--Brown simply walked the perimeter of the space staring at the audience; in another, she took a ballet pose, said “Oh no!” and slowly fell sideways.

As she branched out into her own work, Brown refined and extended the experimentation she had begun with Judson.


In her “Equipment Pieces,” made as the ‘60s turned into the ‘70s, dancers, suspended by elaborate rigging, walked on museum walls or down the sides of buildings, transforming the simplest form of human movement into an exercise in disorientation by turning it sideways. In the 1971 “Roof Piece,” dancers semaphored movement from the top of city buildings, playing on assumptions about location and how movement is communicated. In “Accumulation Pieces,” performers repeated ever-increasing, mathematically determined sequences of simple gestural movements: “Cool, obsessive, intelligent investigations of attention and perception,” one critic called them.

These works were pure examinations of movement, performed in silence, without lighting or other theatrical accompaniment. During that time, she also began performing with the anarchic improvisational group Grand Union, and its wild energy began to spill over into her own work. By 1979, Brown began to make her pieces more palatable--for “broader consumption,” she says--adding lighting and “visual presentation” by contemporary artists. A little later, she put music into the mix--contemporary compositions that backed the dances rather than forming their choreographic basis. As her movement vocabulary stretched in more idiosyncratic and elaborate ways, she added trained dancers to her troupe.

Her career hit a kind of turning point in 1983 with “Set and Reset.” Robert Rauschenberg (a fellow Judsonian) supplied the sets and costumes; Laurie Anderson, a haunting score. With its lush, complex dancing, it was the most theatrical--and accessible--thing Brown and company had ever done. It was the beginning of a shift in her position in the dance world--from resolute avant-gardist to, as the Times of London now puts it, a “grande dame of contemporary dance.”

It’s all part of the same journey for Brown. “I made a quiet transition long before I was labeled someone who was going from ‘downtown’ to ‘uptown,’ ” she says. “There’s a purity to addressing reality with clear eyes. I needed to work in the [mainstream] dance circuit, to work in the theater. But I promised myself I wouldn’t be intimidated into good manners, that I would continue dance-making with the same rules and tools that I had used in dancing on rooftops.”

And so she has. When first faced with the narrow black curtains, the “legs” that line the sides of most traditional theaters, Brown had her dancers swat them aside and take them in their mouths. In “Set and Reset,” stagehands carried dancer Diane Madden as she walked sideways along the back wall, a reference to Brown’s past that also broke open the conceptual boundaries of the stage.

“I like to know the limits of my space, and I like to push it,” says Brown. “I like to go to boundaries and stand on them--breach them.”


Slim and lithe, with a small cloud of curly gray-brown hair, and on this day wearing a narrow, black knit dress, Brown looks much younger than her 60 years. The plane that brought her and the company back from several weeks in France last night didn’t get in until after midnight, and her luggage is lost somewhere between Paris and New York. But she is bright-eyed and energetic--preparing for rehearsals for the company’s next appearance, in Los Angeles at the end of the month. (Brown’s troupe appears this weekend at Veterans Wadsworth Theater.) She speaks with a lilting, even girlish voice that tumbles out in long rushes, easily breaking into peals of laughter.

She talks about dance in intellectual Technicolor--referring to the “ribbon-ness” of Petronio’s way of moving, for example--and with an emphasis on the underlying and intricately designed framework of her pieces. But, after tying herself into a convoluted linguistic knot attempting to describe one of her own theories, she also stops, rolls her eyes, and bursts out laughing. “Whoa, Trisha!” she hoots.

Her quicksilver qualities are intrinsic to her work. “I feel like she is able to be a person of many ages,” says dancer Kathleen Fisher, who has been in Brown’s company for five years. “When we’re making something new, she’ll approach things like a child, with a lot of levity and interest--when she gets excited, she’ll scream. Or she can be very focused and specific. She’s got this ability to move through a lot of different mindsets and not just be the age that she is.”

Brown’s actual childhood took place in Aberdeen, Wash., population 16,800. She’s proud of her roots: In her press kit’s list of achievements, her distinguished alumnus award from Aberdeen’s Weatherwax High School is sandwiched between a Guggenheim and an NEA Fellowship.

As a child, she studied tap, jazz and the aforementioned acrobatics, which took her to Mills College in Oakland, longtime home to experimental music and dance. She used her dance degree to teach at Reed College in Oregon, and then headed to New York in the early ‘60s--”because,” as she told a reporter last year, “I couldn’t get any more information on the West Coast.”

Since then she has honed in on her twin obsessions: the anything-is-possible pleasure of pure movement and a fascination with concept and meticulously structured form.


“It’s trying to find a balance and segue between those two worlds,” she says of her choreography. “Like setting a beautiful table and jerking the tablecloth away, and putting it back into order before the dishes break.”

Part of Brown’s structure derives from a cyclical approach--she often does three dances in a grouping, each one dealing with specific movement ideas. There was what she laughingly calls the “unstable molecular structure” series which began with “Set and Reset,” where bodies and body parts slip-slide in what looks like a million fluid pieces. There was the expansive “valiant” series, which includes 1987’s “Newark” and 1989’s “Astral Convertible,” with their big, powerful movement and acrobatic partnering.

She works this way, she says, in part to keep herself from going in too many directions at once. It’s another aspect of the “Whoa, Trisha” phenomenon.

“Usually, the subject of a cycle comes out of what I see along the way in choreographing but can’t touch because I don’t want the [everything but the] kitchen sink [effect].”

Another aspect of structure is setting a limit and seeing what happens. Her 1994 “If you couldn’t see me” was sparked by a simple premise, suggested by her old friend Rauschenberg: to dance facing away from the audience. “I took the challenge; I love limitations. I turned my back so I didn’t have to go any further in my thinking. It’s a dramatic piece,” says Brown, “because my back is to you. You can dream on that surface.”

The various structures she imposes, she says, are “always doing some kind of job. I [am not] just out there expressing myself.”


On the other hand, there is the realm of pure movement. More than any other major contemporary choreographer, Brown makes absolutely no use of the extended lines and codified steps of classical ballet. Instead she invents her own physical geometry, and loves to talk about horizontal and vertical planes, angles and lines in space.

“There was a period of time when I started to think about the body as [something] that I was drawing on with my eye,” she says. “I actually thought of my eye as a pencil. . . . “

She improvises with natural movement, then hones the results to get a quality and shape she wants. Such things must be precise--when she gets up to demonstrate, she checks herself in the mirror, adjusting the right angle between her legs and torso to exactly 90 degrees, despite sore hamstrings from running through the airport last night.

Her body and her dancers’ bodies are her starting points. Brown often asks them to try something risky, like sequences that put the dancers on a collision course; other times she makes her inquiries through mind-benders like asking them to run a phrase backward or combine arm movements from one dance with the legs of another.

“I try to trick them into situations which they have to solve physically, where the body protects the dancer from collision--where they have to veer around each other, and the body goes through the recognition of danger and they stay in there and resolve it through instinct,” Brown says. “And that’s videotaped, because they would never do it again.”

Says Petronio: “She is like a lightning rod--just her presence could make me do things far beyond my capability.”


Diane Madden, the wall walker in “Set and Reset” who has worked with Brown for 17 years, agrees: “Sometimes Trisha pushes me to this place where I can only do something once. Then she falls in love with that one thing, and I have to deal with it for the rest of my life.”

But the challenge is the attraction. “I guess the reason I’m still dancing with her is that I’ve never felt like I’ve ‘gotten it,’ ” Madden says. “I’m still learning.”

The choreographer, too, is still learning. Her latest realm of exploration--the latest set of limits she has imposed on herself--is classical music, which she used for the first time in 1995 with “M.O.,” a work set to Bach’s “Musical Offering” (the company will dance excerpts this weekend), and in 1996 for “12-Ton Rose,” to music by Anton Webern, created for her company’s much-heralded 25th anniversary gala at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last year. (Both titles are typical of Brown’s love of puns: “M.O.” can be modus operandi as well as the initials of the Bach piece, while the Webern title plays on his compositional use of “12-tone rows.”)

On a practical level, her reason for tackling classical music was to prepare for choreographing and directing a full-scale version of Monteverdi’s opera “L’Orfeo,” which will be presented at Belgium’s Monnaie opera house in May 1998. But she found herself relishing the intellectual challenge of matching the music’s structural complexity without being submerged by it.

In the process of working with Bach she discovered a surprising affinity. “My work has always been polyphonic--more than one voice. The difference is it has not been to music. You can’t hear different voices, or recognize a counterpoint. But I’ve always been very involvedwith structure. So it was like a game of chess with Bach.” She traces a parallel zig-zag pattern in her lap with her hands to illustrate the way the music and dance worked together, singing along, finishing gesture and musical phrase with a small, satisfied flourish.

But when “M.O.” was unveiled, some questioned whether her use of such traditional music was a kind of betrayal, a concession to her embrace by the mainstream dance world.


Brown sees it as the next stage in an ever widening circle. “I think there’s a tendency for people to stereotype what an artist is and then to always refer to that, to not allow for the artist’s natural evolution,” she sighs. “I’ve always been trying to make the best choreography that I can.”

In fact, it seems as if the creative expanse before her grows wider as she gets older, each dance’s answered questions revealing a whole new set of possibilities.

“There’s so much to do,” Brown says, leaning forward. “God, I’m frantic about it. I want to do it all.”


* The Trisha Brown Company performs Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at Veterans Wadsworth Theater in Brentwood. $27-$30 ($9 for UCLA students). (310) 825-2101.