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Simplicity of Movement, Directness of Address: Remembering Trisha Brown (1936–2017)

“Dear Sue, I would like to dance at the Walker again. Sounds simple doesn’t it?” So begins the late American choreographer Trisha Brown in a 1973 letter to Suzanne Weil, then director of the Performing Arts department at the Walker Art Center. A few weeks later, Weil writes back: “I would like you to dance at […]

Trisha Brown, _Accumulation_, Walker Art Center, 1978

Trisha Brown, Accumulation, Walker Art Center, 1978

“Dear Sue, I would like to dance at the Walker again. Sounds simple doesn’t it?” So begins the late American choreographer Trisha Brown in a 1973 letter to Suzanne Weil, then director of the Performing Arts department at the Walker Art Center. A few weeks later, Weil writes back: “I would like you to dance at the Walker again—how’s that for being as simple as you are.” Their exchange is direct, straightforward, a bit playful. Reading it some 40 years later, I’m struck by how the tenor of the correspondence seems in some particular way to capture an essential quality of Brown’s work. Simple.

This is an assertion, perhaps, in opposition to much of the scholarship or reviews on her choreography, and, indeed, there is no denying the rigor of her movement vocabulary or the depth of her embodied and intellectual experiments. Trisha Brown was never simple in the banal way: an idea easily understood or a concept without difficulty. Rather, her choreography had an ease to it—the left arm rises, the elbow bends inward toward the face, and then the arm falls back down—and a pulse to its structure, which meant, if you watched closely enough, you could glean a part of what she was proposing. As her choreography shifted from the arch simplicity of her early pieces—in which the title of the work often articulated exactly what was to transpire (Man Walking Down the Side of a Building)—to her more intricately choreographed productions for the stage, her work was always marked by a directness of address. In Accumulation (1971), and its subsequent development as an ensemble work, Group Primary Accumulation (1973), and then finally Accumulation with Talking Plus Watermotor (1978), she created a choreographic structure in which movements (and spoken ideas) were added incrementally, making the process of choreographic creation eminently apparent. Here is the first move, here is the second, and then, watch closely, we will do them both again, and then add a third. Hers was a dance practice that sought to reveal itself; her simple never lacked.

November 9, 1974 Loring Park, Minneapolis

Trisha Brown, Group Primary Accumulation on Rafts, November 9, 1974, Loring Park, Minneapolis. Photo: Boyd Hagen

Brown’s letter continues as she muses to Weil what she might present. In later letters between the two, she mentions she might show some of the new work she’s been exploring since leaving behind the “equipment pieces”—works like Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (1970) or Floor of the Forest (1970) in which contraptions like harnesses or horizontal scaffolds allowed performers’ bodies to invert the rules of gravity. Since creating Accumulation a few years earlier, Brown writes, she has kept returning to that idea of revealing the choreographic apparatus to the viewer through the dance itself. A new work, Group Primary Accumulation, will be presented soon in New York, she writes: “Are you interested in this piece for Minneapolis?” This initial correspondence, though, details an entirely different idea: “I have mulled over a piece titled manscape or humanscape for 2 years now. The piece consists of 100 people lined up abreast across the stage. To begin, the person on the right steps forward & says I am 100 years old (and is) the next person steps forward & says I am 99 years old (and is), etc. down the line to a one year old.” That’s the dance: so simple and straightforward—and poignant now as I reread this letter in light of her passing.

Since beginning her career in the 1960s, Brown returned many times to the Walker. She first came in 1971 as part of Grand Union, the experimental performance collective often described as one of Judson Church Theater’s key progeny (the core group of which included Trisha as well as Barbara Dilley, Douglas Dunn, David Gordon, Nancy Lewis, Steve Paxton, and Yvonne Rainer). Like Judson before it, or even Black Mountain College, Grand Union has proven important to the development of contemporary interdisciplinary art, collapsing, as the group’s members did, distinctions between dance, theater, play, sculpture, and visual art. If, often, their version of that collapse ended up looking a bit like a mess, it was a particularly glorious one. In November 1974 she returned as a solo artist—this is the visit to which her letter alludes. Eager to explore the full array of performance venues the Walker could offer, Brown and her three dancers (Carmen Beuchat, Caroline Godden, and Sylvia Whitman) performed in the galleries, on the stage, and in Loring Park, a public park adjacent the center. For the next several years, the Walker’s programming was to be punctuated by visits from Brown.

In 1978 she presented a series of solos, and, then, in ’79 she premiered Glacial Decoy. A Walker commission, Glacial Decoy is pivotal in her oeuvre as it marked her near complete shift to the stage and to using the various theatrical trappings of such spaces (sets, elaborate costumes, lighting). Robert Rauschenberg, a longtime friend and a frequent collaborator with other noted choreographers like Merce Cunningham, created the décor and costumes: long, sheer, white nightgowns. Glacial Decoy was to be the last work created for the all-women iteration of the Trisha Brown Dance Company (indeed, as the piece premiered at the Walker, she had already auditioned male dancers to join the company), and those white gowns, in retrospect, seem to not-so-obliquely critique classical histories of women dancing in white: Swan Lake, Giselle, or La Bayadére. Throughout the 1980s, ’90s, and into the 2000s, she and her company presented works like Set and Reset (1983), a piece which in 2008 was performed by students in the Dance Department at the University of Minnesota and retitled Set and Reset/Reset, as well as her last piece, I’m going to toss my arms—if you catch them, they’re yours (2011).

Trisha Brown, _Line Up_ (Trisha Brown, far left), Walker Art Center gallery, 1974

Trisha Brown, Line Up (Trisha Brown, far left), Walker Art Center, 1974

Brown’s time at the Walker was always one of active exchange, not simply sharing her work but reaching out to the community to teach workshops, invite local dancers (like Elizabeth Gerran) to join her company, and train students and dancers to perform works from her repertory (Set and Reset/Reset as well as PLANES, from 1968, which was remounted in 2008 at the Walker). This legacy of community engagement and co-learning marked not only Trisha’s time here but is intrinsic to her legacy as a choreographer. The logic of her practice has always been that of the gift. It is dance offered in the spirit of generosity, surprise, perhaps unknowingly, and, like the act of unwrapping a gift, there are layers to uncover. If you catch them, they are yours. For nearly 40 years, Brown kept the promise of her letter’s simple assertion: I would like to dance at the Walker again. Her last visit, and her last performance, came in 2008.

Dubbed the Year of Trisha, 2008 included a gallery exhibition, stage performances by her company, and restagings of some of the notable pieces she had presented at the Walker. Conceived of by then-Visual Arts Curator Peter Eleey and Philip Bither, the Director and Senior Curator of Performing Arts, the exhibition So that the Audience Does Not Know Whether I have Stopped Dancing focused on Brown’s drawings, long a part of her larger arts practice. For its opening, she performed It’s a Draw/LiveFeed (2002) in the Walker’s Medtronic Gallery. Dressed in a black shirt and pants, she held charcoal in her hands and between her toes, moving her way across an expanse of white paper, leaving pigment traces of her dance behind.

Trisha Brown, _Floor Drawing/Performance_, 2008

Trisha Brown, Floor Drawing/Performance, Walker Art Center, 2008

The drawing produced from her performance, and indeed her oeuvre of drawings more broadly, reveal the trace of her movements, whether the small gesture of moving pen across paper or the sweeping act of spinning in circles across the floor-sized canvas. The word “trace” references an ephemeral act—the footstep that preserves the memory of the absent walker. Traces are also quite material. We have the drawing to hold on to. A trace is also, of course, an imprint, a mark, which once made creates a shift, a change. Trisha Brown has left just such an imprint here at the Walker, in contemporary art more broadly, and, most keenly, in dance.

She writes on white paper with a black pen. Her handwriting is rushed, the words drawn out as her cursive spreads across the page. Her letters, though, are short, as though eager to get on to the next letter and the next. Like her drawings, like her choreography, the archived letter—preserved now in a plastic sleeve—articulates yet another trace of her presence. And, if we let her, it articulates, across the decades, a philosophy of dance.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

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