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Trisha Brown

Trisha Brown and Stephen Petronio performing her Set and Reset, 1983. Photo: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images.

THERE IS A PHOTOGRAPH of Trisha Brown and Stephen Petronio dancing her masterpiece Set and Reset in 1983, in which Brown appears to levitate. She seems to have flown in and alighted briefly on Petronio’s shoulder. And where had she come from? Brown grew up in coastal Washington, and she spoke often of the primordial effects that the forests of the Olympic peninsula had on her. “I never studied ballet,” she was quick to point out. “But I studied the natural principles one applies when one crosses a stream on a log. I know a lot about instinctive behavior. You’re working with energy and initiated action.”

That energy and action feature in another origin tale, set in 1960 on Anna Halprin’s fabled Northern California deck, where Brown studied improvisation alongside Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer, who both witnessed the event in question. Assigned a ritual sweeping task, Brown recalled

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