Trisha Brown (1936–2017)

Trisha Brown, date unknown. Photo: Lois Greenfield.

AT AGE SIXTEEN, I glimpsed Trisha Brown in rehearsal at Bennington College. She was making Opal Loop, 1980, and being filmed by WGBH-TV Boston. What I saw indelibly touched me. I became an ardent, unrelenting fan of her choreography. I never imagined we would meet. That privilege came in 1999 when, as a curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I invited Trisha to create her first new work for a museum since the 1970s (a decade when the art world provided her abstract dances their most important venues). After our project, It’s a Draw/Live Feed, 2003, premiered at Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop and Museum, she asked me to write about her drawings, an invitation that turned out to be a kind of audition for me to author a book on her work.

One of Trisha’s dancers had a different explanation for my being the beneficiary of this honor. During a studio visit, Trisha climbed a ladder to pin up the corner of a large drawing, which I was there to study. She lost her footing. I instinctually reached out to catch her. Given her preoccupations with gravity, with falling, and with trust—beginning with “Equipment Dances,” such as Man Walking Down the Side of a Building, 1970—our body-to-body connection impressed her. I had passed a test of which I had been unaware.

The Trisha Brown I initially encountered had been a celebrity since her collaboration with Robert Rauschenberg and Laurie Anderson on Set and Reset, 1983, attracted international acclaim. Paralleling her ceaseless production of new choreographies for the stage (often produced in collaboration with visual artists and contemporary composers), she toured with her company twenty weeks per year to far-flung destinations, such as Beijing (1985) and Moscow (1989), but especially to France (beginning 1973), where she is a beloved cultural icon.

Trisha moved through the world as if enveloped by a rarified aura. It was impossible to envision a woman of such delicate glamour living as a young mother in the mid-1960s in a raw SoHo loft without plumbing. Her elegant composure belied a person of fierce ambition. She made heroic sacrifices for her art, commensurate with the uncompromising conceptual and aesthetic rigor of works such as Accumulation, 1971: The dance’s accompaniment by a countercultural anthem—the Grateful Dead’s “Uncle John’s Band”—aligned its formal austerity with a contestation of establishment values.

Humble to the point self-effacement, Trisha insisted that she was not a rebel but an experimentalist constantly searching for the next new perfect choreography. In interviews, she inevitably stood up to perform the dance she was describing—just as she often recalled her upbringing in rural Aberdeen, Washington, climbing trees, racing down gullies, and clamming before sunrise. The loft at 541 Broadway, where she lived since 1974, hosted a trophy from those years: a stuffed pheasant shot while hunting with her father. Physical memories from her youth were the basis for her dance Homemade, 1966.

Trisha’s body was its own world: insatiably flexible, animal, and incapable of domestication by existing techniques. She only excavated her inimitable movement language sixteen years into her career as a choreographer, in Watermotor, 1978: she was forty-one years old. Until 2008, she danced with abandon, sensuality, wit, and unpredictability, as if every follicle of her body were on fire. Company members who shared her stage compared the experience to being in the presence of a wild gazelle.

Extensive research, both empirical and scholarly, informed her choreography. Her 1970s dances visualized intention and process. In a favorite artistic strategy of the 1980s, she sent two dancers running directly at each other. Observing their negotiation of this planned crash of bodies, Trisha yelped with joy when they delivered the unexpected mix of danger and beauty she was seeking. Then she had them repeat this extemporaneous event, fixing it as choreography. Asked how company members improvised in Trisha’s “style,” the dancer who put it best explained, “Trisha had to be in our bodies, and we had to be in her mind.”

Trisha loved language and had a distinctive way of speaking and writing—poetic and indirect, similar to her movement, which sent impulses throughout multiple pathways of the body simultaneously. Her erudition had deep roots: Two great aunts earned Ph.D.s from Yale University in the 1920s, becoming renowned historians of American–Native American relations. To conjure dances Trisha coined remarkable image-filled phrases. While making M.O., 1995, set to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Musical Offering (1747), she invoked faceted jewels and orbiting satellites. To direct Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607) in 1998, Trisha visited the site of its original performance in Mantua, Italy, and learned to read music.

Trisha Brown, Set and Reset, 1996. Photo: Chris Callis.

For most of her life, her work was 90 percent of what she did—though Trisha lived with humor and esprit. She will forever be known for her meticulously conceptual working process and her invention of singular movement languages; for her unique approach to orchestrating improvisation and artistic collaboration; for directing operas in which singers substituted abstract movement for naturalistic illustration of narrative and character; and as a visual artist who created a body of drawings that have been exhibited in, and collected by, numerous international museums.

I will always remember Trisha as an artist who used her body as an instrument of thought.

I am fortunate to have come close to a woman of such wide-ranging genius, exquisite taste, and personal courage. Her artistic contributions remain so pervasively influential as to have become imperceptible: part of the air that will be breathed for generations.

Susan Rosenberg, a writer and art historian, directs the M.A. program in museum administration at St. John’s University, New York. Resident scholar at the Trisha Brown Dance Company, she is the author of Trisha Brown: Choreography as Visual Art, published by Wesleyan University Press in 2016.

For more Passages, see a forthcoming issue of Artforum.