Review: In the Steps of Trisha Brown

by Ashabi Rich for The Dance Journal | photo copyright Icaras Films

Dir. Marie-Hélène Rebois, France/US, 2016, DCP, 79 min.

Featured at The Lightbox Film Center, the signature arts program of International House Philadelphia, In the Steps of Trisha Brown is a film journal mainly of the work involved in restaging Glacial Decoy, a 1979 seminal work of avant garde choreographer Trisha Brown. Using dancers from the Paris Opera Ballet, Ms. Brown’s unfettered choreography defied recording using the modern dance era’s script of Labanotation, making it necessary to pass on her works via a human who had worked closely with Brown. Lisa Kraus, a co-creator of the work, is teaching the ballerinas. Kraus teaches not just the steps of the piece; first she works to infuse them with the nature of the essence of how Brown herself moved. Possessed of an idiosyncratic virtuosity, she is said to have had the ability to forge access and represent inseparability of mind-body intelligence. (Wikipedia) She had a meticulous creative process, involving “millions of details in her choreography”, yet no specific technique to learn. (Mikhail Baryshnikov). She took inspiration from bringing untrained performers and dancers (into the Judson studio) to imbibe a freshness and natural approach to movement. Dancer/Choreographer Elizabeth Streb stated, in reference to Brown’s piece, “Man Walking Down the Side of a Building” (shown in the film) that she taught an entire audience how to fly. She also taught Streb how to answer the query of, “Why are you included in the field of dance?”

Brown, one of the founders of the avant garde Judson Dance Theater, is regarded as having revolutionized modern dance in the 20th century.  The first woman to win a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, she was a multi-gifted artist who made “poetic use of natural physical impulses.” (Alastair Macaulay, N.Y.Times) and “invited people to think, move and see differently.” (Wendy Perron, Dance Magazine) Raised in a forest between mountains and the sea, Brown delighted in running at top speed through the woods, the unpredictability of which taught her to change routes quickly and to do so in asymmetrical patterns. “I think that’s the basis of her work,” commented the set and costume artist Terry Winters. ‘The shortest distance between two points is not necessarily a straight line.” Kraus and Carolyn Lucas, Artistic Director of the Trisha Brown Company, are living recorders of Brown’s “unstable molecular structures.” (Robert Rauschenberg). Rauschenberg’s black and white slides provide the changing backdrop against which the work is performed.

The film is mentally laborious. I felt the pace of learning movement heretofore foreign to years of formal dance training. You can feel the dancers mentally using their training to will their responsive bodies to do what they want them to do – imitate the visual instructions and verbal tweaks of Kraus.  Clips are included of Brown performing, giving the bar to aspire toward as model. You twist a little in your seat with the tedium and pressure that each dancer feels as they try to absorb and master the “no-technique” technique. In the way that Kraus demonstrated, for example, how to allow the arms to follow in an unbroken flow around the body during a turn, and to keep the knees flexible, and to relax the torso to allow a flow-through of movement, my mind went to the art of Tai Chi, a slow-motion of preciseness that flows. I saw the movement of West African dancers such as Guinea-born master dancer Youssouf Koumbassa, whose choreography consistently presents an embodiment of that naturalistic approach. I felt a link between Indigenous dance styles and artistic works of that region because they comprehensively embody that collaborative process manifesting as an intersecting and interacting of artistic intentions that Brown cherished.

The central work of the film, Glacial Decoy, uses no music. The sound of the projector changing the slides, audible breathing and bare feet squeaking against the bare floor, provide the audio cues, a kind of metronome timing initiating change in the choreographed floor patterns. What looks random and improvised is, in the final stage, solidified into a specific dance. The dancers, all women, have a uniformity of type for the main dancers, tall and blondish, which Kraus mentions. The brunettes stay on the fringes for the most part. The costumes, diaphanous, white, silky, full, long and pleated from neck to hem, originally designed by Rauschenberg, work really well with the choreography and help to pull the whole thing together against the gritty subject nature of the slides. Though Brown was said to always have the intent of keeping dance and movement fun, getting to the final performance of this work really did not look like that much fun.  At the conclusion of the film, the audience seemed relieved that, though educational, it was finally over.

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