Comments introducing In the Steps of Trisha Brown
In April 2017, I was invited to introduce screenings of the film In the Steps of Trisha Brown at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Below is a transcript of my comments.
Hi, my name is Hope Mohr. I’m the Artistic Director of Hope Mohr Dance here in SF. I’m going to speak for a few minutes to provide a frame for your viewing in the form of some personal reflections on entering the world of Trisha Brown.
The film In the Steps of Trisha Brown chronicles the transmission of Trisha’s Glacial Decoy to the Paris Opera Ballet. This screening is very timely given Trisha’s recent passing. Her death, like that of Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch, raises anew questions about the meaning of legacy in the dance world, questions about the process and the limits of passing knowledge from body to body.
Trisha made Glacial Decoy in 1979, as part of a group of works that she characterized by “s” words: Silky, sensuous, slippery, sequential. (Her most famous work, Set/Reset, was made right after Glacial Decoy.) This is a different cluster of work than Trisha’s later Valiant series, which valued athleticism, and included pieces like Newark and Astral Convertible.
I danced with the Trisha Brown Dance Company from 2000 to 2005. I learned parts of Glacial Decoy when I auditioned and I learned and performed the piece in 2004,and 2005. I learned it from Diane Madden, the current co-artistic director, and received additional glosses on the material over the years from Lisa Kraus and Shelley Senter.
Prior to my entering the world of Trisha Brown or rather it entering me, I had trained almost exclusively in ballet and at the Merce Cunningham studio, both resolutely vertical realms of muscle and will. The first time I took a class at TBDC, I had to leave halfway through because I was so frustrated. The class began with half an hour of laying on the floor, releasing muscular tension. I wasn’t used to equating dance with such little effort. But soon I went back—my curiosity had been provoked. And so began a long investigation into the question of how to achieve the right balance of control and release. How to engage just enough to have clarity and support, but not so much as to over-effort.
Just 6 months ago, Hope Mohr Dance’s Bridge Project, in association with YBCA, presented a project here called Ten Artists Respond to Locus. Locus was a dance that Trisha made in 1975; you’ll hear Lisa Kraus refer to it in the film. The Locus project here commissioned 10 Bay Area artists from different disciplines to learn Trisha’s Locus and respond to it by making new work. As part of that process, Diane Madden led both a public weekend workshop and a two-week private workshop for the commissioned artists.
For the non-dancer artists in the Locus project—people from music, visual art, and poetry—there were the expected challenges of jumping into a body-based process. Trisha’s work has roots in the so-called pedestrian body and in a democratic body, meaning that, in her words, “any body part is fair game”---all parts of the body must be available to initiate movement. However, Trisha's vocabulary is not simple. Even for artists from sophisticated dance backgrounds, embodying Trisha’s movement was a challenge. Greg Dawson was one of the Locus project’s commissioned artists. Greg, Artistic Director of Dawson Dance, is an accomplished choreographer with a ballet background, a former Lines Ballet dancer. He said, of learning Locus, that it was: “Different and uncomfortable: the complication for myself was comprehending the intent of the locomotion, where each passage transitioned to the other.” Indeed, in the film, you will see the Paris Opera dancers—some of the best dancers in the world—looking awkward and flummoxed as they wrestle with initiation and sequencing in the body.
So what is so elusive about Trisha’s movement?
1. Dance as action not shape
Trisha, like others involved in the Judson Church cohort in NYC in the mid 1960s, (re)conceived of dance as a series of ACTIONS not shapes: the arms must toss or fling, not mimic a predetermined port a bras.
Sidebar--Interestingly, despite Trisha’s focus on generating movement based on improvisation, tasks, and games, the culture of the company over the years has become increasingly devoted to reconstructing movement off video—a visual, not somatic source. You’ll see these twin focii in the film: the pursuit of real-time physicality on the one hand, and the meticulous reconstruction of the past on the other. TBDC is a company where the desired physicality is anchored in one revered body. This is an interesting contrast with many other contemporary companies, where movement is democratically sourced among many bodies or the movement comes from a score that is open to dancer interpretation. The task in reconstructing repertory for current TBDC dancers is to pay allegiance to the specificity of the choreography, while also resurrecting and embodying the original question behind the action—for example, what happens when you throw your arm one way and your pelvis in the other? On the interesting tension between the authority of sensation and video archives, see the Critical Correspondence Interview with (now former) TBDC dancer Neal Beasley.
A second challenge for classically trained dancers engaging with Trisha’s movement is:
2. Distal Initiation
How to initiate movement from the edges of the body—the fingers, toes, knees, elbows—distal points, rather than proximal—
In ballet, movement is usually initiated in the core, and organizes back, defaults back, to midline. Whereas in Trisha Brown's movement, the goal is, in the words of Shelley Senter, to go "out into space" to enter the movement. To let your edges spill you out into space.
In the film you are about to see, Lisa Kraus summons the image of a hurricane to rouse the dancers out of their tendency to produce a tidy sequence of shapes. You can see this same abandon in archival footage of Trisha.
3. Authentic weight
The third major challenge in embodying Trisha’s work, coming from a classically trained background, is accessing authentic weight in the body. Not holding your weight up out of the floor, nor bracing yourself against gravity, but yielding weight, “finding the down.” Not just in the pelvis, but in the hands, the head, every bone.
Another way of saying all this is that to do Trisha’s work, you need to know how to fall. Not how to perform a fall, but how to really fall. Ballet dancers train to be “on their leg.” To do Trisha’s work, you have to train to be off your leg, how to free up your weight so it is not fixed, but constantly available to spill in any direction. In her essay about teaching Glacial Decoy published in CQ, Lisa Kraus writes that “It’s not like executing something; it is more like getting on a roller coaster and going for a great ride.” (Lisa Kraus, "Decoy Among the Swans," Contact Quarterly, Volumne 29, Number 2, Summer/Fall 2004).
A final way of understanding the paradigm shift presented to the POB dancers is to speak in terms of dancing from the bones, not the muscles. Trisha Brown technique, if there is one, prizes skeletal initiation over muscular effort. This approach has the potential to fundamentally change a dancer’s approach to everything.
This is a profound shift of awareness, which for me took years. The POB dancers had only two weeks to learn the dance---certainly not enough time to alter one’s habitual response to gravity.
Indeed, in an essay for Contact Quarterly, Lisa Kraus acknowledged the impossibility of her task, and said: “the mind shift of welcoming a hybrid may be what’s called for in a situation like this where time is limited….the underlying aspiration…must not be to make the dancers just like [Trisha Brown dancers].” (Lisa Kraus, "Decoy Among the Swans," Contact Quarterly, Volumne 29, Number 2, Summer/Fall 2004).
What makes Trisha’s work so strong is its combination of physical release, rooted in somatics, and compositional rigor, rooted in visual art. Trisha would create phrase material, rooted in somatic experience, not in the visual. The company does not use mirrors. But after she made the phrase material, she would shift into the world of visual art to compose it into form. And so, to dance her dances, you have to be able not only to fall, but to fall into extremely specific shapes. You have to learn balance freedom with constraint.
With that, I invite you to enjoy the film. I’ll be around afterwards if anyone wants to talk.
Lisa Kraus, Beauty and Genius-In the Steps of Trisha Brown, thINKingdance.net
Lisa Kraus, Posts from Paris: How We Teach Trisha's Dance, thINKingdance.net