Mind, Movement, and Memory: Douglas Crimp and Peter Eleey on Choreographer Trisha Brown

Mind, Movement, and Memory: Douglas Crimp and Peter Eleey on Choreographer Trisha Brown

Trisha Brown, Set and Reset. Photo by John Waite, courtesy of Trisha Brown Dance Company.

In conjunction with the recent Center-funded retrospective, Trisha Brown: In the New Body, organized by Bryn Mawr College, we invited author and art critic Douglas Crimp and MoMA PS1’s chief curator, Peter Eleey, to reflect on Brown’s influential choreographic practice, her “insistent relation to visual art and artists,” as Eleey says, and issues of “ownership” and preservation in dance. Brown is an internationally known post-modern innovator and an enduring renegade whose work had rarely been seen in Philadelphia prior to Bryn Mawr’s series, which spanned the major phases of Brown’s creative life.

Brown’s work has been the subject of Crimp’s critical writing, while Eleey organized an exhibition centered on the artist’s drawings at the Walker Art Center in 2008 and edited the accompanying publication Trisha Brown: So That the Audience Does Not Know Whether I Have Stopped Dancing. Their conversation follows.

Douglas Crimp: In March, I saw Stephen Petronio Company’s remounting of Trisha Brown’s Glacial Decoy. I remember seeing the work when Trisha made it, in 1979. It was her first proscenium work and thus a huge departure from the earlier work that I knew, which was sited in public, everyday, or museum and gallery spaces—the Accumulation pieces, Locus, the Structured pieces, Sololos, Line-Up. In the opening section of Glacial Decoy, the dancers emerge from behind the side legs only slightly and then dance right back out of sight, as if the dance were actually taking place in the wings. It was clearly a commentary on Trisha’s ambivalence about the proscenium as the place for her dances.

I was also struck by the work’s entirely new vocabulary of movement, which, unbeknownst to me, Trisha had invented the previous year for Watermotor. Here’s the way I described her movement in Artforum:

combinations of walking, hopping, skipping, bounding, leaping, falling, crouching, crawling, and lying down; extending, balancing, folding, shifting, twisting, and changing directions. The movements seem to come from the extremities one moment, the core another, the joints another—all done with unexpected shifts in velocity, from glacial slowness to lightning speed to stock stillness. 1

The movement that Trisha innovated in Watermotor and continued in Glacial Decoy was characterized by a luscious fluidity and flow. (You can really see it in Babette Mangolte’s slow-motion footage of Watermotor.) Stephen Petronio, Trisha’s first male dancer, had joined the company at that watershed moment, in 1979, so I figured if any company could get her movement style right more than three decades later, it would be his. I found the fluidity missing in the opening section of the Petronio Company’s Glacial Decoy, but it was there in the long centerpiece duet, danced by Cori Kresge and Emily Stone, enough to make seeing the dance again thoroughly satisfying.

Cori Kresge and Emily Stone in Glacial Decoy. © Yi-Chun Wu

Glacial Decoy was set on the Petronio Company by Diane Madden who was joined by Lisa Kraus, both of whom danced with Trisha at the same time as Petronio. Madden continued with her long after Petronio left to form his own company, and is now one of the two associate artistic directors of the Trisha Brown Dance Company. It’s a measure of what fine repetiteurs Madden and Kraus are that Glacial Decoy looked so good, but even more so how terrific the current young Trisha Brown Dance Company looked in its final repertory performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in January, when they danced Set and Reset (1983), Newark (Niweweorce) (1987), and Present Tense (2003), with decors respectively by Robert Rauschenberg, Donald Judd, and Elizabeth Murray. (Madden’s fellow associate artistic director, Carolyn Lucas, was, of course, also involved in coaching the company dancers.)

One performer in particular, Marc Crousillat, just blew me away. With his long, seemingly jointless limbs, his fluidity matched Trisha’s own. That soft flexibility is so hard to achieve. So many dancers these days seem to train their bodies to snap rather than flow from one position to another. To me, getting dancers to loosen up was one of Trisha’s great choreographic achievements. As early as 1979, when she made Glacial Decoy, Trisha told Yvonne Rainer in a conversation we published in October:

If I go to a concert and see someone beating his body or blasting it against the floor, I’m horrified, aesthetically and physically. I can’t believe that people still do that sort of thing. But I’m aware that it’s still 80% of dance. I do not participate in that. I do have very sharp, dynamic movement in my dances, but it doesn’t come from that look like you’re going to explode. 2

It’s funny, because Trisha’s Watermotor looked exactly like a series of explosions, but explosions that were natural to a body in motion and could be manifest in the flick of a wrist as much as a leap into the air.

Peter Eleey: In considering the qualities of Trisha’s movements, I think it is important to also note her use of stillness and the absence of movement where we expect it—what she evoked when she memorably described standing still “so that the audience does not know whether I have stopped dancing.” Those moments of ambivalence and evasion that you describe in Glacial Decoy seem related, as does her late solo with her back turned to the audience, the magisterial If You Couldn’t See Me (1994).

I found myself thinking about these elements in Trisha’s work in a recent conversation about the hypervisibility of artists—and all of us more generally—in our age of social media and governmental surveillance. Her periodic employment of kinds of counterperformance seems useful against this backdrop. More broadly, I have found myself wondering about the crescendo of interest in her work over the past decade. Just as there are moments when she stopped moving, turned her back to the audience, or directed the dancers to skirt the edges of the stage, Trisha often alternated between movements and methods that appear automatic and those that seem highly conscious and self-aware. “The body solves problems before the mind knows you had one,” she has said, and I suspect that there is something alluringly authentic about this—evoking, within a highly evolved structure, a primal, pre-modern, pre-conscious way of moving through the world—that is part of her appeal today.

Distinguishing herself from Merce Cunningham, Trisha once emphasized to me that she worked with “structure” whereas he worked with “chance.” Although she was certainly not alone in this structural focus, her dances are marked by a particularly vivid tension between the form and its enactment that makes the structure creak under the weight of its use—Accumulation (1971) being a kind of zero point of structure as action, a dance constructing itself in real time. That tension I’m describing is one in which the mind and body are pulled apart and seem almost to operate as independent systems. This is perhaps most visible when she later added talking to Accumulation, as well as elements of Watermotor, to create a new work. That piece (titled Accumulation with Talking plus Watermotor) really seems like a kind of clinic, a lesson in virtuosity that sets the fluid body into a feedback loop with a supple mind.

DC: Trisha has been one of the great improvisers since the very beginning of her career, and she has invented all sorts of ways to “set” the movement she improvises to make dances out of it. Since she formed her company, or more precisely since she began working with her post-Watermotor movement style, her dancers, too, improvised upon phrases she gave them, and then she edited the movement and created structures for it. So, indeed, her dances can be characterized, as you say, as a tension between the “automatic” and “highly evolved structure.” But there was a time in the 1970s when her dances seemed to be nothing but structure—as I mentioned, she designated a series of works Structured pieces. These and the earlier Equipment pieces are the ones that were (and remain) so amenable to loft, gallery, and museum spaces, and in fact were conceived in dialogue with artists like Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt. So another aspect of what you called a crescendo of interest over the past decade is the early work’s compatibility with art museums, which have recently embraced dance so fully. (Your 2008 show of Trisha’s work at the Walker Art Center was an early example of that embrace.) Now that the company will no longer be doing the repertory, these early “site-specific” pieces will be what continue to be performed by the company.

I will miss the repertory pieces Trisha made between 1979 and 2011—thirty-odd works not counting the operas and the Winterreise staging. During that period, you could say, her audience was more the dance world than the art world, although she continued to collaborate with artists, especially Robert Rauschenberg. Theirs was one of the great collaborations between a dancer and an artist, on the order of Graham and Noguchi’s. Even what you rightly called the magisterial If You Couldn’t See Me was made from an idea of Rauschenberg’s, and he designed Trisha’s costume for it. During her “dance world” period, Trisha, like other of our great dance artists—Merce Cunningham, Lucinda Childs—was more appreciated and supported in France than she was in the US.

Trisha Brown, If You Couldn’t See Me. Photo by Klaus Rabien, courtesy of Trisha Brown Dance Company.

There are other things that characterize this long phase of Trisha’s work: her move, whether ambivalent or not, to the proscenium; her embrace of music, Bach and Schoenberg in addition to musicians of her own milieu like Laurie Anderson, Robert Ashley, Alvin Curran, Richard Landry, and Peter Zummo. And the operas, of course: Carmen, L’Orfeo, Salvatore Sciarrino’s Luci Mie Traditrici, Rameau’s L’Amour au Théâtre. Trisha’s production of L’Orfeo is one of the most beautiful opera productions I’ve ever seen. She choreographed the singers! The DVD of it includes a wonderful documentary of how she managed to do that. Simon Keenlyside, who sang Orfeo, was clearly exhilarated by the experience.

Another characteristic of this phase is a more traditional sense of virtuosity. You and I know that Man Walking Down the Side of a Building and Line Up require a certain kind of virtuosity, as most certainly does Accumulation with Talking plus Watermotor, as you point out. It’s an astonishing mnemonic feat, of both mind and body working alongside and in some ways in opposition to each other. (Trisha collapses on the floor in exhaustion after dancing it in Jonathan Demme’s film of it.) But dances like Newark (Niweweorce) and Foray Forêt require a particularly high level of what is more recognizably dance technique and precision timing, even if the technique is uniquely Trisha’s—that soft flexibility and flow that I spoke of with regard to Glacial Decoy. I don’t think it is going to be possible for other companies to do it well in the future. It’s like Cunningham in that regard. It was too reliant on the dancers working daily with Merce or Trisha.

PE: The point you make about the post-1979 period of her work is an important one—that the proscenium stage and its support structures (French or otherwise) also mark a shift in audience for her work. And, as you imply, that the post-retirement period may indeed be marked by a return to the audiences of art, owing to the more basic structures of the 1970s works, their suitability to the institutional spaces of galleries and unsprung stages, and their practical feasibility.

I should point out that our Walker show centered on the drawings, with some video documentation of dances, and limited performance. Working with the company and our colleagues in the performance department, we did present Man Walking on the exterior of the museum on one occasion during the exhibition, and also organized a program of early works outside in the sculpture garden (including Line Up, which ended not against a wall but against George Segal’s bronze Walking Man) and in the park and pond across the street (including Spirals down the trees), where the company revisited the version of Group Primary Accumulation that they had once realized there on floating rafts (known as Raft Piece). We commissioned a new It’s A Draw performance drawing that Trisha made in the gallery at the opening—or rather, right before we let the audience in, live footage of which we simulcast to the theater. And we also rebuilt the early work Planes (1968), which was performed regularly by local companies in the gallery during the show. The piece was set by a local dancer named Wil Swanson, who had once danced with Trisha’s company, and fine-tuned by Trisha herself when she came for the opening. 3

Trisha Brown: So That the Audience Does Not Know Whether I Have Stopped Dancing, installation view, Walker Art Center, 2008.

For Planes, the Walker installation crew engineered and built the stage wall and footholds on which the dancers climb, based on archival images; my recollection is that we used this again in Lyon when the show traveled there, and the company then took this structure (or some version of it) on tour. Trisha seemed to have only a silent version of Jud Yalkut’s film that is projected on the dancers, missing the vacuum cleaner soundtrack that Simone Forti created for the piece. (Simone was willing to remake it, but we eventually located a copy of Jud’s film with her original sound.) We had new costumes made. In short, the museum helped the company recuperate a work that had been essentially lost, using its exhibition resources to try something beyond the technically “simpler” early works that have subsequently appeared more often in and around galleries.

We now see museums building the capacity to present more complex dance. MoMA has a performance producer, for example, and, as others have, is continuing to look at ways to supplement its facilities for dance (and other live forms) in the expansion now getting underway. Even as we focus on improving conditions for presentation, the model of The John Cage Trust, and its approach to defining what endures, under whose authority, and how—which has been adapted to administer the legacies of Merce and also Trisha—seems to invite museums to think more broadly about our preservation and conservation missions, as delineated by issues of transmission, memory, and repetition.

As it happened, we had a Tino Sehgal show at the Walker in the gallery immediately before Trisha’s show, and she was both perplexed and, I think, slightly seduced by what he proposed—adapting his movement-based work not simply to the museum’s galleries but also to its economics and conservational ideologies. She wondered what it would mean to “sell” a dance, though one can also ask what it means to own one, and what one does with it. Tino emphasizes that the acquiring museum should strive to protect his “constructed situations,” which includes presenting them with some regularity. By miming museological structures in their practices, artists like Tino, Boris Charmatz, and Xavier Le Roy have helped reorient the museum toward both the presentation and “preservation” of performance more generally, and dance more specifically.

DC: It’s a cliché to say this, but dance is ephemeral. You and I will never see Nijinsky dance. I’ll never see Susanne Farrell dance Agon again, nor will I see Trisha dance Watermotor again. When I wrote the article for Artforum on the occasion of Trisha Brown Dance Company’s 40th anniversary, I asked about Watermotor, “Will it ever be danceable by anyone but Brown?” The answer, it turned out, was yes. Shortly after I posed the question, in fact, Neal Beasley danced it, beautifully. But Beasley is short and compact, and for that reason alone it was a very different dance. Trisha made the dance on her own body, and moreover at a time when her company was still all-female. Imagine Spanish Dance (1973) being done with men! Explosive as it was, Watermotor’s fluid movement seemed distinctly feminine. I guess you might say Beasley danced a masculine version of it. I’d like to see Marc Crousillat dance it. I bet it would be closer to Trisha’s than Neal’s version.

All of this is simply to say that in the most important sense you can’t “buy,” “own,” or “preserve” a dance. I don’t think Tino Sehgal is a good example, because, in spite of his background in dance, what he makes now are, as you say, “constructed situations,” and moreover he makes them within and for the institutional framework of the art world. He does provide one model, though. MoMA has recently acquired Simone Forti’s Dance Constructions (1960), and as I understand it the museum will partner with Danspace Project to conduct training workshops for their performances. But these works are far more amenable to reconstruction than Trisha’s or Merce’s repertory works. Cunningham set up a trust that oversees his legacy, and his dances are, as is traditional in the dance world, transmitted through repetiteurs, that is, body-to-body. It’s really no different from the Balanchine Trust. Recently I saw Miami City Ballet perform a Balanchine work I’d never seen before, Bourrée Fantasque from 1949, and I read this line in the program: “The performance of Bourrée Fantasque, a Balanchine Ballet®, is presented by arrangement with the George Balanchine Trust and has been produced in accordance with the Balanchine Style® and Balanchine Technique®, Service Standards established and provided by The Trust.” Three assertions of copyright in a single sentence—now that’s ownership!

I can imagine Trisha’s early works being collected by museums following the Sehgal model. But even so, with a work like Planes, which is closer to a dance construction than to Trisha’s repertory works, you yourself said that you had to make decisions about the sound and that Trisha fine-tuned the dance. I worry that if museums get into the business of preserving dances, the kinds of dances that will be canonized will be skewed toward the ones that can be done by “re-performers” (excuse the expression) as opposed to the ones in which innovations in dance technique and dancers’ individual movement styles matter most.

In spite of her career-long close connections with the art world; in spite of the fact that she herself was a brilliant visual artist, I think Trisha was first and foremost a dancer and choreographer. I worry much more about the survival of a masterpiece like Set and Reset than I do the early works.

Trisha Brown Dance Company in Set and Reset, 2015, presented by Bryn Mawr College as part of the series Trisha Brown: In the New Body. Video by Byron Karabatsos.

PE: I totally agree—she was indeed really a dancer and choreographer, though one whom I think we have to consider through her insistent relation to visual art and artists. And by that I do not mean through her drawings (despite having organized a show around them), nor by seeking ways to collect or fix her works via the necessarily limited forms that visual art may offer. In her forthcoming study, Susan Rosenberg focuses on Trisha’s early works and the initial eight years of her stage work to argue for the importance of reading Trisha in and alongside the contexts of visual art. (I think Trisha was more internally focused in her relationship to visuality than, say, Yvonne Rainer, whom Carrie Lambert-Beatty connects to a kind of televisual picturesque. While Babette Mangolte and others make clear that the camera loved Trisha, I never get the sense that Trisha was dancing for the lens.) Visual art served Trisha in various ways, including by offering a different, related, and often-contradictory model for preservation, visibility, and memory—all things that concerned her and that recur as themes throughout her work.

Using numerous close studies, Susan draws our attention to the interplay between automation, memory, and fixity in Trisha’s improvisational methods. Trisha saw choreography as thought, action, and memory; as you note, she employed a studied improvisation in her dances, which she seemed to consider closer to action and memory, with the thought stripped out. Watching Trisha’s dances, I am always aware of certain structural and thematic binaries, which contribute much to what I find both beautiful and unsettling in her work. Repetition is set against improvisation; accumulation against decomposition; individuality against group dynamics; randomness against causality; sensuality against mechanization. Things are coupled and uncoupled, shifted in and out of gear. Self-awareness is pushed against a wild unconsciousness; language against movement, brain against body. Elegiac undercurrents recur; the de-accumulation at the end of Roof Piece, for example, is a kind of structured un-building of dance.

Dance’s ephemerality has allowed it to become a vehicle for nostalgia that is in many ways more efficient than the photograph. As you remind us, dance is a form of art denominated by the body at its most alive. It seems obvious that in grappling with its preservation, we are in fact struggling to accept the evanescence at its core—rehearsing distressing thoughts about what cannot survive or be recuperated and trying to get more comfortable with a variety of losses. This is not to diminish the importance of these discussions; it would indeed be unfortunate if Trisha’s early works get canonized because of the ease with which they comport with museological and art-historical forms of preservation. But we feel that way largely because we cannot (or seem unable to) extend the same status to certain other major works of hers, especially those in which the expression of the individual dancer(s) is paramount.

Part of the power of Trisha’s work lies in her engagement with these shared anxieties of transience that choreography as a discipline was designed to resist—our mutual knowledge that decomposition overwhelms construction, that the body’s wildness eventually wins out. When she says to us, in titling one of her final works, I’m going to toss my arms—if you catch them they’re yours, lots resonates about her work and many of the issues we have been discussing. I was enormously moved by the piece when I saw it at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music), just a month after the announcement of Trisha’s retirement. I am still haunted by the industrial fans that Burt Barr used for the set, and the way their wind disturbed the dancers’ costumes and eventually helped disrobe them. In trying to think back to the piece, I find that my memory of the dance gives way to an image of its conclusion: simply the fans on stage and their mechanization of natural force. There was no curtain call. During the performance, I kept returning to the odd title and its invocation of physical transmission from one body to another, of sending your body (her body) beyond itself to be received by someone sufficiently capable. The nonchalance of the throwaway “toss,” married to the potential for recuperation as a gift. The suggestion that whatever is received is now “ours,” with all the freedoms and responsibilities that attend ownership. Her title seemed as perfect to me then as it does now, an instruction to her dancers and historians alike.

Douglas Crimp is Fanny Knapp Allen Professor of Art History at the University of Rochester and the author of On the Museum’s Ruins (1993), Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics (2002), “Our Kind of Movie”: The Films of Andy Warhol (2012), and Before Pictures (2016). Read more>>

Peter Eleey is the chief curator at MoMA PS1. Since joining the museum in 2010, Eleey has organized or co-organized more than 20 exhibitions, including surveys of emerging and established artists such as Huma Bhabha, James Lee Byars, Simon Denny, Lara Favaretto, Mike Kelley, Maria Lassnig, Sturtevant and Henry Taylor. Read more>>

1 “You Can Still See Her: Douglas Crimp on Trisha Brown,” Artforum 49, no. 5 (January 2011): 158-59.

2 Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer, “A Conversation about Glacial Decoy,” October 10 (Fall 1979): 36.

3 Trisha Brown: So That the Audience Does Not Know Whether I Have Stopped Dancing. Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. April 18-July 20, 2008.

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