Hendel Teicher is a New York–based art historian and independent curator. For over a decade she was curator of twentieth-century art at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva. She has organized numerous museum exhibitions on subjects ranging from photography (including Erwin Blumenfeld 1897–1969, Florence Henri, 70 Photographs 1928–1938, and Ugo Mulas Photographer 1928–1973) to design and architecture (Pioneers of Twentieth Century Furniture).
Each artist works from a single idea or image and later gauges the success of a work in comparison to that image. Not that it would look like the original, but that it would be of equal power. If this is true, then for me it is the forest, a memory of dampness, broken light, unbelievable density, stillness and secrets. —Trisha Brown
Trisha Brown—one of the most influential choreographers and dancers of her time—spent her formative years in the small town of Aberdeen, Washington, bordered on the west by the Pacific Ocean and on the north by the Olympic National Forest. The forest spans nearly a million acres and is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the United States, including the largest remaining stands of old-growth trees. The scale and various topographies of that landscape deeply moved and activated Brown’s creative imagination.
Brown’s dance embodies not only physical movement but also remembered movement: climbing trees, pole-vaulting, playing football and basketball, digging for razor clams, hiking; hunting geese, duck, and pheasant; fishing in local rivers for salmon and for steelhead and cutthroat trout. Brown remembered the forest as her “first art lesson,” and her activities there guided and trained her in navigating animated environments.1 To observe the forest floor, the textures of rock and soil, the living surfaces of a fallen tree, the architecture of a 100-foot cedar; to hear the sounds of birds, wind, and water; to perceive the temperature, the pressure of the air, the scent of the forest; to welcome the spectacle of the forest’s fluctuating and transient light—all Brown’s senses were engaged as she learned how to slow down, stop, find balance, engage, and feel the position and movement of her body. The forest would be an ongoing source of inspiration, as evidenced to varying degrees of specificity by some of the titles she chose for her choreographies: Trillium, Skunk Cabbage, Salt Grass, and Waders, The Dance with the Duck’s Head, Skymap, The Stream, Floor of the Forest, Primary Accumulation on Rafts, Spiral, Opal Loop/Cloud Installation #72503, and Foray Forêt.
Woodlands are animated, dense, mysterious places with dark recesses of their own. They demand alertness, curiosity, and a fearless physicality. These qualities, encouraged in Brown during her childhood, appear throughout her life and work. She thrived on physical challenges, always keeping herself off balance, sometimes even to the point of danger. Like the painter Willem de Kooning, Brown was a “slipping glimpser.”2 Both were virtuosos who chose to work against their natural abilities, a precarious device for remaining open and focused on process, the generator of form and image. The physical freedom that Brown experienced growing up amid a wild and powerful nature was a gift that nurtured her curiosity and courage. She recalled early experiences as a child running fast on the uneven forest floor, full of fallen trees. She had to quickly choose where to place her feet, creating asymmetrical and unpredictable pathways. She registered these stored memories as broken patterns, a prevailing subject of her work.
In 1961, Brown transported her Pacific Northwest sensibility to New York, which she envisioned as an artificial forest of corresponding scale and density. She was eager to explore it, and to join the small New York art world of like-minded spirits. She danced with her friends Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, and Simone Forti, and early on met Robert Rauschenberg, already established as one of the most inventive artists of his generation. In 1965, she danced in his performances Spring Training and Map Room II, and their enduring friendship would later produce numerous collaborations. She was also captivated by Rauschenberg’s work with Merce Cunningham and John Cage, whose music and ideas had a far-reaching impact on her own work. Specifically, Brown was drawn to Cage’s use of chance procedures as an organizing principle. Chance allowed her to “reposition the units of motion that make up a phrase. They become objects that can now be put together in any order, random or determined. Abstraction seeps in.”3
The body solves problems before the mind knows you had one. I love thinking on my feet, wind in my face, the edge, uncanny timing, and the ineffable.Trisha Brown
Brown’s early and long-lasting attraction to improvisation had been established in the summer of 1960, when she attended a six-week workshop with Anna Halprin. Working outdoors on Halprin’s wooden dance platform in northern California must have felt familiar. Located on a steep hill, the deck was suspended in air, amid the birds and surrounded by trees. Brown remembered her first “mercurial surges of an intuitive process where physical proposals and responses were dished and dashed on a whiz-by playing field. [Halprin] also introduced ordinary task as formal structure, which found me sweeping the deck with a push broom for hours until I crossed over into levitation.”4 Yvonne Rainer, another participant in that workshop, recalled the very moment when Brown pushed so hard on the broom that “her body was catapulted into the air parallel to the ground.”5 When Brown repeated the move two years later in her solo Trillium—this time without the broom, but still giving “herself the tasks of sitting, standing, and lying down while in the air”—Rainer marveled again at her dexterity and “innate kinetic humor and fearlessness.”6
The title Trillium refers to a three-petaled wildflower, a perennial in Northwestern forests. Brown observed that it “grows in the spring . . . [and] is this beautiful creature down in the forest when you are walking through all this dark. . . . I tried to transplant it to my mother’s garden and it would never take. It would never go into the conformity of a garden. It grew wild.”7 Performed in 1962, Trillium, a three-minute improvisation, marked Brown’s first choreography and her official entrance into New York’s art and dance worlds. She continued to thrive on the elusive practice of improvising while always incorporating structure, a way of taming the unknown.
Trillium shaped that unique quality of Brown’s work where both memorized and instinctive movements meet organizing principles. “I love the give and take between idea and physical enactment,” she said, “with instinct sorting out the problems along the way. The body solves problems before the mind knows you had one. I love thinking on my feet, wind in my face, the edge, uncanny timing, and the ineffable.”8
The 1960s were an extraordinary period of artistic cross-pollination and experimentation, with painters, sculptors, photographers, filmmakers, musicians, poets, and dancers all exploring the connections among their disciplines. Their experiments “cracked open the door of new possibilities” for Brown, showing her that “the modern choreographer has the right to make up the way that he/she makes a dance.”9 So when, in December of 1968, she performed The Dance with the Duck’s Head in the lobby of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, a viewer might have been rattled by the work’s unexpected juxtapositions. Preparing for her appearance in this prestigious location, Brown had spent weeks building her costume and had sketched several ideas for the fifteen-minute choreography. In this ambitious and arduous undertaking she performed in the lead role, stuck in her rigid papier-mâché duck costume, her movements obstructed. Quite a contrast from the lightness of Trillium. At the beginning of the performance the “half bird, half woman” moved across the stage in a crouch and sat down on a chair. This was followed by a staged “violent fight” between two performers positioned in the audience. When things cooled down, the “duck” stepped into a pair of logging boots bolted to a metal frame, which was then lifted by four men who walked around the space, twisting, rolling, and even turning the frame upside down to depict “the look of free flight.”10 The performance was at once raw, humorous, and poetic and seemed to reference the dynamics of gender relations.
Exultant and fearless, Brown literally dove into a direct engagement with the forms of the architecture itselfHendel Teicher
Looking to expand her territory, Brown would next confront the forest of the city. The New York environment began to play an essential role in her developing choreography; Lower Manhattan especially offered an inspiring beauty, and the postindustrial economy provided many large, empty, and cheap spaces in which to live and work. Brown’s early performances, often short, singular pieces, were performed in spaces untraditional for dance: streets, rooftops, parking lots, parks, lofts, galleries, museums, churches. Exultant and fearless, Brown literally dove into a direct engagement with the forms of the architecture itself, as reflected in the titles of her choreographies: Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (1970), Walking on the Wall (1971), Roof Piece (1971), Woman Walking Down a Ladder (1973).
These performances tested the body with notions of gravity, pressure, weight, force, and energy. Clearly, walking down the facade of a seven-story building, cantilevered out from the wall while remaining parallel to the ground, called for not only courage but confidence, in both the climbing equipment and the athleticism of one’s own body. The dramatic effect of Woman Walking Down a Ladder was captured in a low-angle photograph that juxtaposes the large, vertical, sculptural wooden water tank on a Lower Manhattan rooftop against the small, bare-legged figure of Brown, her body horizontal, her feet wearing only flip flops. It was, in her own words, just a “natural activity under the stress of an unnatural setting. Gravity reneged. Vast scale. Clear order.”11
Roof Piece was another inspired combination of dance and place. In the early summer of 1971, Brown appropriated the rooftops of about ten blocks of SoHo as her dance floor. Chimneys, bulkheads, parapets, and water tanks punctuated the performance space, which ran in a loose north/south line. On their various roofs, fifteen dancers, all dressed in red, performed improvised movements, signaling mysterious signs, like semaphore without the flags. The sequence began with the first dancer at the north end of the line, the second dancer repeated the same signing, and so on, all the way down to the final, southernmost dancer. The performance took fifteen minutes, stopped, and then reversed direction for another fifteen minutes. Brown was testing how accurately gestures could be transmitted over distance and time. Some communication broke down, and some movements were lost along the way—another example of a chance operation at work—but Brown understood the necessity of documentation and its central role for her choreography. To that end she commissioned the filmmaker Babette Mangolte to film and photograph the event, creating a record of the unique circumstances of the performance.
In contrast to Roof Piece, Floor of the Forest (1970) was performed indoors, at 80 Wooster Street, the “Fluxhouse Cooperative” of Fluxus leader George Maciunas. The stage that Brown constructed here was a twelve-by-fourteen-foot metallic-pipe frame across which knotted ropes formed a grid. The grid in turn was densely woven with old clothes, producing an uneven, strange, colorful surface. These manufactured products—pipes, ropes, clothes—replaced the trees, roots, shrubs, and mosses of the forest. The stage “floor” was elevated to eye level and occupied the middle of the loft space. Audience members were free to move around, crouch, or stand up in order to see the two performers, Brown and Carmen Beuchat, whose task was to dress and undress while moving across the horizontal structure from one side to the other. Here, Brown questioned the fundamental position of the body and the hierarchy of its parts. Activities normally done standing were performed above and below the horizontal plane. As the dancers slowly moved along the plane, confronting their own body weight under the pull of gravity, their efforts were arduous and occasionally comedic, especially when negotiating buttons and zippers. Sometimes they rested, lying in a piece of clothing hanging down hammocklike.
Another horizontal choreography, Group Primary Accumulation on Rafts, had a different mood. First performed on the lake in Loring Park, Minneapolis, in 1974, it took as its dance floor the water surface: Brown, Beuchat, Carol Goodden, and Sylvia Palacios Whitman floated on individual square rafts, lying on their backs while executing in unison the same thirty moves in eighteen minutes. Their movements propelled the rafts. Seen in a lateral view from the shore, the dancers drifted on the lake, following a clear, choreographed order—lifting knees, stretching legs, extending arms, and turning on their sides. In the last two minutes, each dancer was seen to make a 360-degree turn atop the raft. Here, Brown demonstrated her love of structure by setting geometric gestures in contrast to the intangible properties of water and air. This particular performance took place on a rainy day, which added a layer of melancholy.
Opal Loop/Cloud installation #72503 (1980) brings Brown’s childhood landscape center stage, this time in the cloak of fog. Working on a proscenium stage, where, in contrast to the works discussed above, the audience would only have a frontal view, Brown found her sense of pictorial focus greatly heightened. Given her collaborative spirit and her intimacy with the visual arts, she decided to join forces with the Japanese sculptor Fujiko Nakaya, who shared with her a preoccupation with the natural world: Nakaya creates cloudlike environments, controlled sculptures made solely of fog. These clouds formed an animated backdrop for Brown’s choreography. The misty formations changed every night, as they depended on the atmospheric conditions of the space. Working indoors for the first time, Nakaya manipulated the fine balance between water, heat, and air while for the dancers’ sake avoiding the condensation of fog on the floor. Her artificial landscape enveloped the dancers at times, even to the point of making them disappear entirely. When the dance concluded, the cloud flattened and rolled forward across the stage like an ocean fog. The aural mix—the mechanical sound of water passing through high-pressure nozzles, the natural sound of the dancers’ breaths and footfalls—reinforced the haunting and beautiful aspect of this performance. Brown’s “sexy, sequential, seamless, silky, sensual” movements emerged within the amorphous and fluctuating fog formations.12
Eighteen years later, Brown’s childhood engagement with the forest found expression in the opera house. Opera is a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art, uniting poetry, music, dance, and the visual arts—an artificial equivalent to the complexity of the natural world long woven into Brown’s memory. In 1998 she was able to realize a presentation of Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo (1607) on the stage of the Théâtre de la Monnaie, in Brussels.
In the Prologue, a character representing the spirit of music, La Musica, flies in an ethereal blue sphere, simultaneously evoking the eighteenth-century Italian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s Rococo ceilings, which depict the fluctuation of light and clouds, and Brown’s own longings for flight, a dominant motif in her work. The baritone Simon Keenlyside, who played Orfeo in this full-scale opera production, remarks that Brown had a “wonderful way of using the edges of the canvas as if it were a peripheral vision. . . . You never leave unwatched the edges of a Trisha Brown stage. It may just be that she is talking to you, the audience, from the wings and other dark recesses of the stage.”13
L’Orfeo was one of six operas that distinguished the latter part of Brown’s career. In 1970, two years after the idiosyncratic performance of The Dance with the Duck’s Head, she had founded her own dance company with three female dancers: Beuchat, Goodden, and Penelope Newcomb (who danced under her first name only). It was a decisive step that proved to be extremely productive: Brown’s total body of work came to comprise one hundred choreographies and the six operas, as well as a significant body of writings, videos, and drawings. And her emotional atmospheres continued, and still continue, to evolve, as a network of young dancers keeps her choreography alive: this year, the Trisha Brown Dance Company celebrates its fiftieth anniversary.
The epigraph to this essay comes from a typed note by Trisha Brown, probably from the late 1960s. See Hendel Teicher, “Bird/Woman/Flower/Daredevil: Trisha Brown,” in Teicher, ed., Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dialogue 1961–2001 (Andover: Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, 2002), p. 283.
1Brown, “How to Make a Modern Dance When the Sky’s the Limit,” in Teicher, ed., Trisha Brown, p. 289.
2See John Elderfield, “Space to Paint,” in De Kooning: A Retrospective (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2011), p. 20.
3Brown, “How to Make a Modern Dance,” p. 290.
4Ibid., p. 289.
5Yvonne Rainer, “A Fond Memoir with Sundry Reflections on a Friend and Her Art,” in Teicher, ed., Trisha Brown, p. 47.
7Brown, in Teicher, “Bird/Woman/Flower/Daredevil,” p. 283.
8Brown, “How to Make a Modern Dance,” p. 290.
10Brown, notes, n.d. One of these is illustrated in Teicher, ed., Trisha Brown, p. 267.
11Brown, in Anne Livet, “Contemporary Dance,” 1982, in ibid., p. 306.
Trisha Brown Dance Company
Founded in New York City in 1970, the Trisha Brown Dance Company celebrates its fiftieth anniversary in 2020. Over the course of her career, Trisha Brown (1936–2017) created more than one hundred choreographies that challenged and changed the way we define dance. She developed her own dance vocabulary, combining commonplace movements and gestures with intricate, athletic technique. She defied convention (and gravity) in site-specific works that sent dancers soaring across SoHo rooftops or walking down the side of a building; then, starting in 1979, she moved on to proscenium works that brought an equally experimental outlook to the stage.
The company’s board, staff, dancers, and friends celebrate this milestone year—and while most of its anniversary performances and tours have been canceled due to covid-19, its artists have, without missing a beat, pivoted to a series of digital dance projects, creating new work that connects them directly to the profoundly experimental impulse that drove all of Brown’s art. For more information, or to support the Company’s fiftieth-anniversary celebration, please visit trishabrowncompany.org.