World on a Wire

Siobhan Burke on Trisha Brown Dance Company

Trisha Brown Dance Company, Ballet. Performance view, BAM, Brooklyn, 2018. Cecily Campbell. Photo: Stephanie Berger.

OF ALL THE DANCE COMPANIES to hash out legacy plans in recent years—to ask what comes next after a founding choreographer’s death—the Trisha Brown Dance Company stands out for going with the flow, much in the manner of Brown’s dances.  

When Merce Cunningham died, his company made the firm decision to fold and license his works to other groups. A few months before his recent passing, Paul Taylor appointed a successor to continue the preservation and commissioning project known as Paul Taylor American Modern Dance. Mark Morris, still very much with us, announced that at sixty-two, he has started making pieces that will be unveiled after he goes. Dance, they all knew—and know—is among the more impermanent arts. To leave its future up for grabs would be to risk the disappearance of a life’s work, and with it the memory of a life.  

At the Trisha Brown Dance Company, the plan has been—at least publicly—less concrete. In early 2017, as Brown’s health was declining, the company concluded what was billed as its final tour of proscenium theaters, turning its focus to “Trisha Brown: In Plain Site,” an initiative to reimagine her work in less traditional spaces. Yet in the wake of her death in March of that year, the demand for her work only grew. By December, her troupe was back on stage, dancing for packed houses at the Joyce.  

The house was recently packed again at BAM Fisher for a short program of three of Brown’s rarely seen works: Ballet (1968), Pamplona Stones (1974), and Working Title (1985). Ballet, in a sense, was almost brand-new, having been performed just once before, by Brown, at Riverside Church Theater. In her place was the nimble Cecily Campbell, crawling along two ropes strung like telephone wires across the black box stage. Incongruously dressed in a pink leotard and tutu, she could have been a girl on the run from ballet class. Brown’s mischievous spirit was also present on two screens, which displayed a film as well as color slides that had accompanied her original performance. In these now-archival images, Brown herself can be seen as she practices the rope crawl on a city rooftop—butt in air, tutu and all, a vision of carefree and gangly grace.  

Trisha Brown Dance Company, Working Title. Performance view, BAM, Brooklyn, 2018. Oluwadamilare Ayorinde and Amanda Kmett’Pendry. Photo: Stephanie Berger.

Two years after Ballet, Brown put ropes—and her fondness for heights—to further good use, as she sent a man walking down the side of a SoHo building (Man Walking Down the Side of a Building). A harness, essential here, would reappear in Working Title (1984), in which it helped a dancer take flight. At BAM, that dancer was Oluwadamilare Ayorinde, aided by two stagehands, who stood in full view of the audience. Though the capacity to fly set him apart from the seven other dancers, his airborne moments seemed as natural as walking or running or lying down. Flying, in Brown’s universe, is just something else that the body can do—a fun, but not special, occasion.  

And what the body does while grounded is just as exhilarating. Untethered after the opening section, Ayorinde joined his terrestrial peers in a cascade of comings and goings to Peter Zummo’s warmly eclectic score, performed live from the balcony. Costumed in bright new designs by Elizabeth Cannon, Working Title is full of near-falls and collisions, each move giving way to the next like a chemical reaction. Two dancers enter and crash into a third; an extreme tilt to the side resolves in a stumble.  

In reconstructing a master’s work, a company risks being too careful, too reverent. I sensed this at times in Working Title, and in Pamplona Stones, a duet created and first performed by Brown and Sylvia Palacios Whitman in 1974. Unlike many of Brown’s pieces, this one involves talking: the deadpan delivery of something like punch lines as the dancers extract absurd functions from a mattress, chairs, and two stones. Leah Ives and Amanda Kmett’Pendry may still have been feeling out that world, but within their delicate relationship to the past, they made it their own. There may come a time when Brown’s oeuvre feels outdated or static, when it is time to move on from theatrical tours, but I don’t think that time has arrived. To make a plan and veer from it: whatever the reasons for this, it somehow feels right, true to the uncertainty of life, and to the unpredictability of the art Brown made during hers.

The Trisha Brown Dance Company performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York from October 11 to October 13.