More Body Than Mind

Long hailed as a creator of "intellectual" dance, Trisha Brown says what she's really doing is dancing from the heart

Dance St. Louis has attracted bigger audiences in recent years by making sure its programming each season offers something for everyone. Many will call the Trisha Brown Dance Company this season's "intellectual" offering. Although that would have been true 35 years ago, the label "intellectual" no longer fits -- at least from Trisha Brown's perspective.

"My dancing comes from my heart, and I love wind in my face; I'm so physical," Brown says in a telephone interview from New York. "The theory and the practice of my choreography is rooted deeply in my body moving. And that, you don't have easy access to for intellectual parlaying. So it's really lopping off my head or my body to talk about that."

True enough, in the renegade days of early postmodernism, she and other iconoclasts at the legendary Judson Dance Theater made rigorously conceptual work. Just out of Mills College and fueled by the political aesthetic of the early 1960s, Brown and others rejected the traditional trappings of dance -- costumes, sets and even music -- leaving only pure movement, says Mary-Jean Cowell, associate professor of dance at Washington University. "They weren't playing a role. They were just a person moving. They were asking the basic question 'What is dance, really?' -- (questioning) what its meaning and its purpose was. Was it to illustrate music, for instance, or was it an independent art?"

Because of that origin, an intellectual image still dogs Brown, even though the next 35 years of her choreography were motored by her fluid, vigorous movement. Movement -- not intellect -- has been the through-line in Brown's career, Cowell says. "It's more a sense of flow of energy, an evolution of one form into another, a ripple through the body with an unpredictable direction."

Intellectual or not, Brown is now respected as a world-class choreographer. "People should come to see her as a landmark in dance history," Cowell says, "but also as a present innovator and creator, someone who, like Picasso, goes on for years developing new motifs and new ways of looking."

After the Judson period, Brown used nontraditional schemes and structures that organized movement, rather than invented movement per se. But in the process, she created dances that looked like no others. In early work, she explored the limitations and demands of dancing on the rooftops of downtown Manhattan. Later, her so-called Equipment Pieces embodied a different perspective on space, time and orientation by using pulleys and climbing gear to help dancers walk on interior walls and ceilings. In the Accumulations series, the movements were dictated by mathematical progressions or geometric structures.

The St. Louis performances showcase relatively recent works. Unlike her early work, these are danced with, if not necessarily to, music. They include "Set and Reset" (1982), the "sweetheart" of her work from the '80s. Performance artist Laurie Anderson saw a video of the unfinished dance and then wrote music, clanging and insistent, as Brown finished up the choreography. The result belongs to the Unstable Molecular Structure cycle, which uses improvisational systems to create an overlay of various activity by six dancers, Brown says. "And that's set now, but it has that look of molecules squirting around in a microscope."

Working with written music was the next logical step. When she choreographed and danced in director Lina Wertmuller's production of Carmen in 1986, it was the first time she returned to her early training of working with a score and narrative, Brown says: "And I found it really fun. It's not so hard as abstraction, because the audience is grounded by knowledge of the story and the music. And the movement is coded by music. You know where you are. There's a sense of unfolding structure."

Although choreographing to music was a dramatic departure from Brown's earlier "silent" work, her dance has long been full of visual counterpoint that fits the polyphonic structure of classical music. And she was always "listening" for revelations, whether music played or not, whether it aligned with the choreography or not, Brown says: "Abstraction has a dimension of emotion, even if it's only the drama of making something new, which stands on its own without the support of music and story."

Carmen inspired Brown to create "M.O.," a 55-minute dance set to Bach's "Musical Offering," and "Twelve Ton Rose," set to music by Anton Webern. Brown then directed her own production of Monteverdi's opera L'Orfeo, which premiered at the Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels in May. L'Orfeo spawned so many ideas that Brown sheared off parts to create "Canto/Pianto" (1997), which the company will present in St. Louis.

The title translates as "singing/weeping," a theme Brown makes apparent using the lineup motif, an interest from the start of her career. As one group of dancers walks to the beat of the music played by instruments, another group weaves between them to the music sung by voices. The shoulder-to-shoulder formations dissolve and reform with a liquid quality as Brown explores the shifting correspondences among the dancers, instruments and voices.

"If You Couldn't See Me" (1994), which will also be performed in St. Louis, continued a series of collaborations with visual artist Robert Rauschenberg that started in 1979. Brown needed Rauschenberg's expertise in lighting and design to make the transition from performing in galleries and museums to performing on traditional stages. She also liked the fact that he's anarchic, Brown says: "So while one whole segment of the critical population screamed, 'She's selling out, she's going into a theater, she's selling out,' I managed to bring the devil himself, and so it kept my honor."

"If You Couldn't See Me" sprang from Rauschenberg's vision of Brown dancing with her back to the audience. In "If You Couldn't See Me," Brown momentarily freezes to the movie-theater-Wurlitzer tones of Rauschenberg's score, then reactivates rippling movements that take her to new stances. In the first solo she had constructed for herself in 13 years, she never faces the audience.

"It's very limited," Brown says. "You can't make a turn, and there are certain dynamic elements that you give up when you do that. And certainly all the standard tools of communication are on the front side of your body, so I was turning my back on my audience and on all of that expression." It challenged her to find other, untraditional modes of expression. But that's what Brown's been doing all along.

Unfortunately, Brown won't perform "If You Couldn't See Me" in St. Louis (Kathleen Fisher serves as her replacement). When she slipped on some drawing paper three months ago, she ruptured her right wrist. "I was up at 5:15 this morning doing hand exercises for two hours," she said. "I just don't know where the rest of my body is. I just keep telling it, 'Look, a member of us is in peril; I have to tend to it. I'll be back later.'"

But will she? At 63, Brown wonders whether she can get back in shape after her wrist heals. But she plans to at least try, a decision that stems just as much from her body as her mind. "I think of myself as a dancer. I will always dance. Whether I'm on the stage or not, I don't know."

Dance St. Louis and the Edison Theatre present the Trisha Brown Dance Company at the Edison Theatre at 8 p.m. Jan. 29-30 and at 2 p.m. Jan. 31.

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