mon 01/06/2020

Trisha Brown Dance Company, Tate Modern & Queen Elizabeth Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Trisha Brown Dance Company, Tate Modern & Queen Elizabeth Hall

Trisha Brown Dance Company, Tate Modern & Queen Elizabeth Hall

Magical dance takes flight among the sculptures - and Q&A with Brown

A snaky conga of women in white pantsuits snuggling their loins together in a Spanish dance, and wiggling their way along a wall behind a Joseph Beuys installation may well be one of the indelible sights of my dance year. Mine, and that of only a few dozen other people, who happened to be in the right Tate Modern gallery at the right moment when this extraordinary little event took place.

Trisha Brown is much less well known here than her colleagues Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp and of course Merce Cunningham, but like Cunningham Brown was a child of the countryside in Washington State, and like him she makes work that often has a sly internal joy in it, much at odds with the presumption that all radical female choreographers of Sixties New York must have been dour lesbians in dungarees.

Over a four-day period Brown was given a featured retrospective in Dance Umbrella - but my, how wrong they got some of it, just as much as they got the Tate event very, very right. At the Tate Modern was a witty collection of Brown’s early “dance actions” staged among “action art”, the objects and the fragments of dance joining up in exhilarating congruity. But if you had done as prescribed earlier, and spent a day wandering around the Southbank Centre taking in films, talks, installations and performances, it would have been a desultory experience.

Brown’s work is concise, fragile, undemonstrative stuff, and despite the masterstroke it must have seemed to the organisers to have her radical 1970 installation Floor of the Forest - a sort of rope climbing-frame with clothes woven into it, and dancers occasionally getting onto it - in the foyer of the QEH, it was far more intriguing to walk past outside and glimpse through the window than to stand and contemplate for long listless minutes, as we were invited to do. Study doesn't seem the right response for something that's designed to bring you up short.

Not much more theatrical was the staging of four of her dances inside the QEH, only one of which was longer than the interval. And I say this in feeling protest, since the works themselves remain subtly flavoursome treats, with that windblown sense of liberation and empty skies that often breezes through Trisha Brown’s charmingly casual choreography.

The venue itself is a real downer for work like hers. It may have been Brown’s own miscalculation to restage that moochy, heedless back-to-us solo, If You Couldn’t See Me, as a duet, You Can See Us, with a second dancer facing us all the time. (It's the woman’s back that speaks so deliciously in this dance, as if one’s looking at a Pepper’s ghost. The man here just spoiled the pleasure.)

But it’s the horrid box-like edge of the QEH stage area that put a hard black wall either side of the celestially carefree girls’ nocturne Glacial Decoy, where in front of a serene slideshow like a long-ago family photo projection show four women dance in stiff, transparent white nightgowns like children dreaming guiltlessly in the moonlight. Their long plaits bob like Quaker girls’ over the nighties that let you glimpse that they’re almost naked underneath. The dance is a chain, sometimes of two of them setting each other a phrase, sometimes three or four in synch, a daisy chain of bliss. The lighting is strangely clear and soft, so you keep looking at the delicacy of the bare feet on tiptoe, or the shapes of their fingers. It’s a dance where time dances without passing, somehow. Robert Rauschenberg may never have made a lovelier fusion of set, costume and lighting for choreography than this, and maybe Brown never made anything more magical than this.

TrishaB_Lamour_au_theatreA 2009 piece inspired by Rameau’s opera Hippolyte et Aricie, L’Amour au théâtre, had unflattering orange trousers and a large, fumbled scribble - perhaps an action drawing - as a backdrop. The dance seemed uncharacteristically heavy and generic-modern for a while, until it suddenly started a wonderful children’s playground game of group lifts and swings, suggesting horses, chariots, archers, and involving some deft acrobatics so convoluted that I started laughing with pleasure.

Brown does girls (or women, I should say, because they are mature, and yet they strongly evoke a childlike, girl state) much better than she does boys, who leave me unsure whether they are men or shadows. The relationship between Cunningham men and women is one of intellectual equals; Twyla Tharp, far more controlling and strict than Brown over her girl choreography, adores her boys; Brown’s females are unwittingly feminine and alluring, and one’s left questioning the purpose of the soft, bland complement of males - it seems a gap of empathy.

It accumulates into a smooth group synchro that makes you sigh at the calm order it puts on our unruly differences


It is hard to believe that the same mind who almost sabotaged Brown by the QEH staging came up with the genius of putting her fragmentary early experiments into the Tate Modern. Although that Spanish Dance by the Beuys was the highlight, there was also the chance to feel the spell of one of Brown’s signature ideas, Group Primary Accumulation of 1970, in which four women in plain white pyjamas lie on the ground doing a routine of bends and touches at first resembling back exercises or shreds of Alexander Technique, which by adding a new bit onto the end each time gradually accumulates into a smooth group synchro that makes you sigh at the calm order it puts on our unruly differences.

I watched it from a glassed-in gallery overhead, glad that I’d abandoned the scrum around it, because unless you were in the front row you couldn’t have seen it properly. Then I promptly failed to get to see two other dances going on in other crowded galleries.

But miracle of miracles, I found myself next to Trisha Brown herself, took this as a clue, sat down next to her - and there unfolded Spanish Dance, the women smiling sphinx-like under Beuys’ morose face. Enchanting - each art bouncing off the other, as tinglingly fresh as a stream in the morning. It'll be impossible now for some of us to visit certain galleries at the grim old Tate Modern without seeing those witty Brown girl ghosts frolicking behind the sculptures.

Watch Sololos and Watermotor (starts at 2m18s), danced by Trisha Brown in the 1970s:

Trisha Brown was born in 1936, the youngest of three children, brought up in Aberdeen, in Olympic National Forest, Washington State, on the Pacific Ocean. The first six years of her life were spent sick with a kidney ailment, kept apart from other children. She played by herself, immersed herself in the “rainforest” and its interlocking forms of life.

In her twenties she went to New York and joined the radical Judson movement of Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton that opposed formal dance movement. Not until her thirties did she start to make the disconcerting "dance actions" that rapidly won her attention, with such off-the-wall activities as transmitting dance across rooftops, or down walls, and then a gradual development of a richly detailed sensuality of movement characteristic of her own long-limbed body. In the 1990s the radical post-Modernist made an unexpected turn into opera and song, choreographing Monteverdi's Orfeo (1998) and Schubert's Winterreise (2002) for singers to perform as they sang. Her most recent piece, L'amour au théâtre - shown on this trip to London - draws on a Rameau opera.

Here are fragments from interviews I had with Brown in 1996 and 2003, mainly concerned with her forays into opera and Lieder choreography.

The audience has absolutely the right to interpret the work as they view it

trisha brownTRISHA BROWN: The difference between ballet and my kind of work is adventure. Ballet is a fixed vocabulary so there’s a comparison from one to another. Modern dance is invented vocabulary from dance to dance. Tradition has already adjudicated; it permits one not to be worried about whether a work is something of real aliveness. A viewer 150 years later, whether they understand a work or not, knows that it’s considered very fine work, so they don’t have to make their own judgement. My work unfolds before them for the first time - with modern choreography a viewer has to come forward and make it their own.

ISMENE BROWN: You mean, re-interpretation of the familiar versus experiencing the unknown?

I would say that my dances are revealed by my dancers. The audience has absolutely the right to interpret the work as they view it. It’s fine for them to see narrative or emotion in it. If something causes emotion in me, I keep it, I moderate it, at an abstract level. With the modern dance that I have seen since I was 17, I have never found emotion as such to be authentic in modern dance. I have always found it to be an enactment, that it’s shallow. Emotion comes from a deeper place than “I love you” [she gestures hands to heart, ballet-style], and if you source that place it’s not going to look like a hand over the heart.

There are two schools of dance with music, two poles established, and they are extremes. One is music pictures - Mark Morris. The other extreme is Merce Cunningham and John Cage, separate but equal entities that meet each other in rehearsal the night before performance. I think there’s a vast area in between these two poles, which is where I am.

Does it cause anxiety to work with text, or draw from opera, especially of such classical type? It's so far from what one thinks of Trisha Brown's work. Is it a pleasure? Is it frightening?

I'm very, very allegiant to the music. But I would say when I worked on Bach's Musical Offering (1995), which was the first classical music I worked on, I would talk to him in the studio: "What do you think of this, Mr Bach?" He was a very good collaborator. But I've come past that now. It's really how can I illuminate certain aspects of this story in a significant way, and I try to do that with as many different layers and levels of signalling. With the Orfeo I even learned the poetry systems, not just the words and narrative, but the structure of the poetry - I think, trying to find out if that structure would be useful to me. This is how I've approached every piece. And I do a prodigious amount of research - I have a quest to find my way in this work, always. And then I have the very great and difficult transposition of taking what I've heard and think and want to do, and bringing it back to modernity. Reading everything I can get, studying the music.

Do you think choreographers hear music quite differently from composers or musicians? A choreographer [Christopher Bruce] once told me he couldn't listen to music on his car radio because he might be so distracted by the dance images that might come that he couldn't drive safely.

Oh really! That's interesting!

I mean that music goes straight from the ear into the brain, and this idea of going outwards into the visual and back again. For instance, I will go to a recital and shut my eyes. Are you put off by work withy strong verbal input?

No! My mother was an English teacher, and I had a very great relationship and love of words, Shakespeare. So yes, we had to spell the word at the breakfast table, pass the T-O-A-S-T. My mother and I played a game about words all our lives, which was how I was able to find she had a weakness of the mind coming on, when she gave me such a stupid word one day. A kind of dementia set in, she died.

I did write more early in my life. [And she did drawings - the drawing for L'amour au théâtre is hers.] If I have time I do write. But to tell the truth since I did the opera Orfeo I lost the writing voice. It's like I gained an opera voice, and lost my writing voice. And yes, I do mind that!

Watch a 2009 re-enactment of Trisha Brown's 1970 Man Walking Down the Side of a Building:

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