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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 at some point pushing the broom out with enough force that it pulled her up into the air in a moment of levitation as she held on. “I still have the image of that broom and Trisha right out in space,” Forti exclaimed, and Brown seems to have taken that aerial maneuver through to the leaps and handstands of the first choreographic work she presented, Trillium, in 1962.

“I used to dream about flying,” Brown often said, and I asked her once if she ever thought about skydiving. She laughed, explaining, “I have a raging mind that comes up with all kinds of interesting ideas, but I am never foolhardy.” This was on the occasion of an exhibition centered on her drawings that we realized together in 2008 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where she had developed her first work for the stage. We reconstructed Planes, 1968, an important early piece based on the free fall of skydivers. The dance occurs on an inclined wall, with a soundtrack improvised by Forti from a vacuum cleaner and a Jud Yalkut projection incorporating images of clouds, giving the faintly vertiginous impression that the dancers are falling horizontally. A related gravitational adjustment was realized more spectacularly when Brown sent a harnessed performer down the side of a SoHo building in 1970 (the same year she founded the Trisha Brown Dance Company)and several performers across the walls of a gallery at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York the following year.

There were other inversions and diversions. For the pioneering Homemade, 1966, she danced with a projector strapped to her back that drew your attention to Robert Whitman’s film as it moved around the stage behind. In Set and Reset, Brown posed herself against a classically trained dancer, giving herself a kind of structured shadow. For a late solo—If you couldn’t see me, 1994—on the suggestion of her friend and collaborator Robert Rauschenberg, she danced entirely with her back to the audience.

Of the many binaries that run obliquely through her work, none was more productive than her juxtaposition of the thinking mind and the moving body. Two years after creating her classic Accumulation, 1971, in which she gradually built a dance in real time, she began to talk simultaneously as she danced, to disorienting effect. “It was an imbalance-able double task,” she noted, “which I worked on with half a brain here and half a brain there.” The acuity of this mind and this body, so often on display in her work, added to the tragedy of her final years, in which dementia gradually overtook her, and caused her to leave the company and her art behind. The mind is a muscle; Brown’s virtuosic body reminded us that the muscles also have a mind, and a memory. Her body was the Trisha Brown museum, with more than fifty years of accumulated gestures and phrases. I found it both sad and reassuring to imagine that it retained her remarkable movements until the end.

Lying on a large piece of paper ten years ago, she made a drawing like a child would make a snow angel, rubbing the charcoal over the floorboards of her studio in winged swoops. The lyrical, ashen frottage records the earthbound dream of flight that long captivated her. The middle of the paper is blank, as if she just got up and flew away.

Peter Eleey is Chief Curator of MoMA PS1.

Visit our archive to read Douglas Crimp’s cover article on Trisha Brown (January 2011) and for additional Passages on the artist; and visit bookforum.com to read Catherine Damman’s discussion of Susan Rosenberg’s new biography of Trisha Brown in the Summer issue.