by Jane Fries for The Dance Journal
Trisha Brown: (Re)Framing Collaboration, is an exhibit currently on view at the Bryn Mawr College Library focusing on the choreographic works and also the lesser-known drawings created by dance maker Trisha Brown. Presented in conjunction with a yearlong Philadelphia-wide festival of Trisha Brown’s work, the exhibit explores the theme of collaboration between the choreographer and other visual artists and musical composers.
The Trisha Brown celebration comes at a time when her company is nearing the end of a 3-year farewell tour, as Brown has retired from her company and making new dances after an unforgettable 50-year career. It is a poignant moment for Brown’s many admirers, who frequently use words such as “beloved,” “ravishing,” and “ingenious” to describe her dances, and a time to focus on the challenges of preserving her work for future audiences.
Over the course of her career, Trisha Brown created a unique style of movement that is relaxed and casual, concerned with the weight of the body relating to gravity. The movement appears at once sensual and slippery, coming into focus but then dissolving just as quickly. She also experimented with structure in her approach to making dances, devising irresistible conceptual ideas and then brilliantly working out the problems they posed
From the earliest days of her career in the 1960s, Trisha Brown converged with artists from various fields who freely exchanged ideas and together challenged the prevailing conventions about strategies for making art. When she arrived in New York in 1961, Brown enrolled in a dance composition workshop held at the studio of already established choreographer Merce Cunningham. The workshop was led by musical composer Robert Dunn, who brought John Cage’s (already Cunningham’s close friend and collaborator) ideas about using chance operations in composition and non-evaluative criticism into the workshop.
In addition to Trisha Brown, students in the workshop included seminal postmodern dance innovators such as Simone Forti, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, David Gordon and Deborah Hay. The group organized their first concert at the Judson Church in Greenwich Village in 1962, and presented work not only by the dancers, but also by writers, composers and artists – including visual artist Robert Rauschenberg. Artists from every field – painters, musicians, writers, filmmakers, etc. – who lived in Greenwich Village attended the Judson Church concerts, resulting in an historic interaction among a new generation of artists.
The (Re)Framing Collaboration exhibit captures the spirit of those days in Greenwich Village, displaying photographs of some of Brown’s early minimalist works. In Leaning Duets (1970 photo) two dancers lean away from each other at arms length, the structure of the dance being to walk, fall and help each other up while maintaining foot contact.
Another pair of photos of Group Primary Accumulation (1973), provides a glimpse into Brown’s playful re-imagining of traditional performance space: In the first photo, four dancers perform an entire dance lying alongside a pathway in a park as pedestrians casually walk by, and in the second photograph, they perform the same dance lying on rafts floating in a lake.
In the early 1980’s Brown began making full-scale works for the proscenium stage, collaborating with visual artists and musical composers to create multi-layered theater pieces that were a center of attention for avant-garde art. One of her closest and most frequent collaborators was the visual artist Robert Rauschenberg, who contributed conceptual ideas, stage and lighting designs, as well as costume designs to a number of Brown’s dances.
The Bryn Mawr exhibit highlights the creative relationship between Brown and Rauschenberg. Especially wonderful to see are the original silk screened costumes that Rauschenberg created for 1983’s Set and Reset. Rauschenberg also designed the sets for the piece, and Laurie Anderson was commissioned to write the score. As was typical with Brown’s collaborations, the three artists communicated about their ideas as they worked on their separate components.
Brown herself explained, “Bob, seeing all of the energy that was going on in the wings…we were always piling up against the wall and bursting out from the wall…he made transparent wings which we have in performance.” About the music, Brown continued, “The movement material was video-taped and sent over to Laurie Anderson, who put it on her video monitor and wrote the music, more or less like a glove on a hand to the dance.” (Informance at Jacob’s Pillow, 1986)
Another engaging item on display in the exhibit is Rauschenberg’s silk screened Portrait of Merce Cunningham (For Trisha). Seeing the portrait in this context brings into focus the friendships and working relationships between these artists. Rauschenberg also frequently collaborated with the choreographer Cunningham, as well as the composer John Cage.
Cunningham too made dances that featured contributions from visual artists and composers, but the relationship between artists differed significantly from Brown’s collaborations. Usually, Cunningham invited other artists to work independently, and brought the dance, music and visual design elements together for the first time at the dance’s premiere.
Although Brown, Rauschenberg, Cunningham and Cage had different styles and approaches to making art, they exchanged ideas freely and clearly inspired one another’s creativity. The items on display in (Re)Framing Collaboration illustrate the close ties that bound these artists together.
(Re)Framing Collaboration also presents many of Trisha Brown’s own drawings, illuminating how making marks on paper was part of her artistic imagination. Her approach was multi-faceted – sometimes drawing was an inspiration for choreography, sometimes a response to a dance that she had already made, and sometimes an art object in its own right.
A selection of untitled drawings created from 1993 to 1994 are an example of how Brown employed drawing as a research tool to investigate the idea of mirroring. Around this time she was also listening to music composed by Bach, and some of the drawings are an exploration of his musical structures. The exhibition explains that these drawings were part of Brown’s creative impulse for choreographing 1994’s If you couldn’t see me and 1995’s M.O. (set to Bach’s Musical Offering).
Brown’s drawing titled Glacial Decoy was actually created a year after the 1979 premiere of her dance by the same name. For this drawing, Brown took her already finished choreography as a departure point for drawing, resulting in a complex web of lines that seem as ghostly as the dance itself.
The large Untitled drawing that is the centerpiece of the exhibit was created by Brown in 2006. It exemplifies a series of drawings she began to make in 1999 where she used her feet and hands to work pastels and charcoal into the surface of large sheets of paper laid on the floor. Brown gave a solo performance called It’s a Draw/Live Feed in 2003 at the Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia where she created a similar large-scale drawing. An excerpt from this performance plays on a nearby video monitor.
Also playing on the video monitor are excerpts from Brown’s proscenium works, providing a dynamic reference point for how her collaborations came together in performance. On view are Set and Reset (set design and costumes by Rauschenberg and music by Laurie Anderson), If you couldn’t see me (set design, costumes and sound by Rauschenberg), and PRESENT TENSE (set design and costumes by American painter Elizabeth Murray and music by John Cage).
These same dances will be presented in concert by the Trisha Brown Dance Company at Bryn Mawr College on Friday and Saturday, October 23 and 24. The superimposition of visual design, costumes, sound and choreography are sure to reward even repeat audience members, because the layers of activity are more than can be taken in with just one viewing.
The Trisha Brown: (Re)Framing Collaboration exhibition itself will run through December 11 at the Bryn Mawr College Canaday Library. The show is a unique opportunity to see a variety of original artworks and photographs, many from private collections or dance company archives, and to contemplate them in relation to each other. A Gallery Talk with exhibition curator Brian Wallace and independent curator Marissa Perel will take place on October 24 at 6:15 pm.
Trisha Brown: (Re)framing Collaboration
September 28 – December 11
Bryn Mawr College, Canaday Library
Open daily 11am – 4:30 pm
Friday, October 23
8 pm Proscenium Works, 1979-2011 (ticketed performance)
Trisha Brown Dance Company
Bryn Mawr College
Saturday, October 24
5:30 pm Performance Floor of the Forest (free)
6:15 pm Gallery Talk with Brian Wallace and Marissa Perel (free)
8 pm Performance Proscenium Works, 1979-2011 (ticketed performance)
Performances by Trisha Brown Dance Company
Bryn Mawr College
Tickets and info: trishabrown.brynmawr.edu or 610.526.5210.
$20, $18 seniors, $10 students and dance professionals, $5 children 12 and under
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