From Paris to Philadelphia: Trisha Brown’s Foray Into Ballet

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Photo © Julieta Cervantes 2009

by Jane Fries for The Dance Journal

When Trisha Brown started out choreographing dances in the 1960s, the revolutionary spirit of the times led her, along with a group of Judson Church Dance Theater contemporaries, to seek new ways to democratize dance.  They wanted to de-emphasize technique and training, which they associated with an elitist aesthetic, and present a more natural or pedestrian way of moving.

The notion that Trisha Brown’s dances would someday be performed by highly trained ballet dancers would have been very surprising back in the 60s and 70s.  Thus, when the Pennsylvania Ballet presents a company premiere of O Zlozony/O Composite June 9-13, Philadelphia audiences will have a unique opportunity to see how Brown’s work has evolved over the course of her 50-year career.

At a recent open rehearsal of Brown’s ballet, PA Ballet dancers Lillian DiPiazza, Ian Hussey, and Aaron Anker worked with long time Trisha Brown Company dancer Neal Beasley on taking a different approach than usual in learning the choreography.  Whereas ballet dancers are typically asked to resist gravity and maintain an uplifted carriage, in Brown’s work they must let go and give in to gravity, to allow the movement to flow with ease.

The trio of dancers practiced a lift, experimenting with permitting the laws of physics to take over, so that DiPiazza was truly falling as the men transferred her body weight between them.  In a discussion about the process of learning to dance the piece, DiPiazza commented, “some of the movement can only happen by giving in to gravity, which can be scary, but you have to trust it.”

Generally, ballet dancers must project their performance to the audience, but in Brown’s choreography the dancers endeavor to let the shapes and motion of their bodies speak for themselves – to dance without “playing” to the audience. Hussey remarked that he found the difference between the two styles refreshing, and that Brown’s work is about “just being a human being, letting the dance come to you.”

Along with other post-modernist choreographers, Trisha Brown’s work from the 60s and 70s called accepted ideas of dance composition and performance into question.  Her dances were frequently “task-based” and the “dancing” was whatever movement was required to execute the task.  In Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (1970), for instance, a performer strapped into a harness leaned off the top of a seven-story building, then proceeded to walk down its side.  His task was to alter his actual movements to give the illusion of natural, upright walking despite the change in relationship to the force of gravity.

Brown set out on a new path in 1978 with the solo Watermotor, when she unveiled an original kind of dancing that was loose and unadorned as well as full-bodied and concerned with giving into gravity and rebounding.  Babette Mangolte captured this turning point on film, providing a beautiful record of the freedom in Brown’s style.  Brown continued to develop this idiosyncratic movement vocabulary in kinesthetically thrilling group dances such as Glacial Decoy (1979) and Set and Reset (1983).  The dancers in her company were more and more trained, yet as dance critic Deborah Jowitt wrote, “Many of the values developed during the early sixties proved durable: no grand manners, no pretense, no showing off, no body set that announces, ‘I am a Dancer'” (Time and the Dancing Image, 1988).

An expression of the 1960’s cultural revolution, the experiments of the Judson Church group continue to influence dance even now, 40 to 50 years later.  The wonderful notion that the regular person is aesthetically engaging in her own right persists.  But the sixties couldn’t go on forever, and Brown’s work necessarily evolved with the times. ” I needed to go forward,” Brown said of her artistic journey.  “I wouldn’t have made Set and Reset if I’d stayed and chased my tail about things like walking down the sides of buildings” (New York Times, 2009)

Over the course of her career, Trisha Brown has received long-standing support in France, where she was named Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres and where many of her dances made their world premieres.  Thus, it’s not surprising that her work first became associated with the realm of ballet there, and that both the Paris and Lyon Opera Ballet companies have added some of her signature works to their repertories.  In fact, the Lyon Opera Ballet is the largest repository of Brown’s work outside of her own company, and by many accounts has succeeded in capturing the essentials of Brown’s choreography.

In 2004, the Paris Opera Ballet invited Brown to create a new piece for three of its leading dancers and she seized the opportunity to work on her own terms within the framework of traditional ballet.  From the passages glimpsed at the PA Ballet’s open rehearsal, it’s evident that Brown’s choreography for O Zlozony/O Composite fuses her characteristic use of gravity to initiate movement with the graceful virtuosity of ballet to create a hybrid form, or a “sweet spot,” between the two kinds of dancing.

Brown’s inspiration for the ballet was the poem “Ode to a Bird” by Czeslaw Milosz.  The title “O Zlozony/O Composite” comes from the first two lines of the poem in the original Polish; translated to English as “O unconscious, O composite.”  The poem evokes the image of a bird as an incarnation of something immeasurable, as a creation with “a galaxy in its body.” Brown developed a unique “alphabet” of steps drawn from imagery from the poem, rather than using the traditional “alphabet” of ballet steps.  But she also deliberately incorporated the ethereal, idealized aesthetic qualities of the ballet dancers to enhance the celestial imagery of the dance.

The PA Ballet dancers executed Brown’s choreography with beautiful clarity, their arms sometimes raised in a “V” shape like wings, or bent overhead in beak-like fashion.  Finely attuned to each other, they moved with sculptural precision, shifting in rhythm and relationship, carving the space around them.  Drawing from ballet, they suddenly flocked together in unison, sweeping back in arabesque, like birds on a branch pushing off into flight.

Brown created O Zlozony/O Composite in collaboration with composer Laurie Anderson and painter Vija Celmins, with Milosz’s “Ode to a Bird” serving as a creative nexus.  Anderson’s score incorporates verses from the poem, chanted in a woman’s voice in Polish, and Celmins’ backdrop of a starry sky suggests the celestial sphere on which heavenly bodies are projected.  As a work of art created for the stage, the collaborative components come together to envelop the senses, a unique phenomenon with each performance.  To borrow the words from Milosz, each performance holds the potential to become a “luminous thing.”

The production notably features the talents of three superb women artists, a rarity in the world of ballet.  It will also be the first occasion for any American ballet company to perform any work choreographed by Trisha Brown.  The premieres of Brown’s large-scale collaborations with other major artists have always been anticipated as an art world happening – and lucky for Philadelphia, this time it will be happening here.

Balanchine and Beyond
The Pennsylvania Ballet
June 9, 2016 to June 12, 2016
Merriam Theater
Tickets: paballet.org

About Jane Fries

Originally from the west coast, Jane Fries pursued undergraduate studies in dance at San Diego State University, where she got her start writing about dance for the student newspaper. After an escapade as a correspondent for Dance Magazine in the south of France, she went on to earn her MA in dance from Mills College in Oakland, California. Jane's subsequent explorations in non-theatrical dance forms led her to take up the practice of yoga. She has lived in the Philadelphia area since 1996, and has had the great pleasure to study Iyengar yoga with Joan White. Jane's writing reflects her background in dance history and interest in documentation and preservation.

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