Trisha Brown: Seminal Movement

BY Melissa Gronlund / Mar 21 2017 / 16:39 PM

In tribute to the legendary dancer and choreographer Trisha Brown who passed away yesterday at the age of 80, Melissa Gronlund reviews Trisha Brown Dance Company's recent performance at The Arts Center at New York University Abu Dhabi

Trisha Brown: Seminal Movement
Silvia Lelli
Trisha Brown in Ravenna, Italy in 2014

In 1970s New York a group of choreographers sought to question the vocabulary of dance. If an arabesque was part of the movement of dance, why not a wave? A hand reaching for a coffee cup? Or a single movement, repeated ten times? A number of programmes in the Emirates this spring will explore this seminal moment: a tremendous opportunity to see the beginnings of contemporary dance.

The Arts Center at New York University Abu Dhabi is staging some of the early works of Trisha Brown, one of the key choreographers of the Judson Dance Theater; she incorporated mathematics, ropes and riggings, and the city itself into her repertoire. Trisha Brown: In Plain Site, on 24 and 25 February, includes five of Brown’s pieces from this period: Floor of the Forest (1970), Roof Piece (1971), Group Primary Accumulations (1973), Solo Olos (1976), and Watermotor (1978), shown both in the black-box theater and in sites across the campus. “Trisha’s work can be so emotionally provocative,” says Carolyn Lucas, the company’s co-director, who helped curate the program. “But also almost scientific. We wanted to show the range of her early work.”

Trisha Brown at the Charleroi Danses in 2013

The company will be performing the rarely seen Roof Piece, an iconic work of 1970s New York in which different dancers, all clad in bright red, gesture in succession to one another from vantage points perched on different buildings. Bill Bragin, the Arts Center’s artistic director, says that during the company’s site visit to Abu Dhabi, “We walked all around, climbed on roofs, and tried to see what could change the audience’s expectations of the campus.” As ever, the ambient sounds and skylines of the site’s performance become part of the experience of the dance. “Thinking about it in Abu Dhabi,” says Bragin, “Makes you remember how bright the light is here, and how quiet it is. It will have a totally different feel than in New York.”

One of Brown’s key innovations was to pay close attention to the human body as the site of dance movement: at its very basic, what it can and can’t do. “So much of Trisha’s work was about anatomy,” says Lucas. “About the body defying gravity, working with momentum.” Brown’s dancers utilise different structures and supports, straining their muscles as they walk down walls, balance props, or subtly recalibrate everyday movement. In Floor of the Forest, clothes are arranged across a raised structure, and the dancers move into and out of them as they weave themselves across the platform. The work re-imagines what it’s like to get dressed–what if the process were horizontal rather than vertical? –and turns this newly difficult, serpentine movement into the core of the work.

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Trisha Brown in Munich in 2014

Brown’s work is exemplary of the strong overlap between the 1970s postmodern dance community and the interest in rule-generated works in other art forms at the time, such as Philip Glass’s minimalist music compositions or Conceptual artists such as Sol LeWitt and On Kawara. Indeed it is during 1970s that performance started to become a more mainstream part of contemporary art, and Brown has influenced a host of young visual artists, such as Boris Charmatz, Pablo Bronstein and Tino Sehgal.

The visual-arts side of 1970s New York will also be explored at the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation, in Dubai, in their exhibition Artist Run New York: The Seventies (9 March 9–30 June ), of works and archival material by artists such as Glass, Nancy Holt and Joan Jonas. The infrastructure of 1970s New York was in many ways as radical as the artistic shifts that occurred within it: artists left the commercial gallery and institutional models to run spaces themselves, such as the famous 112 Greene Street, in which the artist Gordon Matta-Clark grew a cherry tree and Bill Beckley accidentally killed a rooster. And the NYUAD Art Gallery’s Project Space will hold an exhibition of the photographer Joanne Savio, who documented dance for over twenty years, capturing Brown, Merce Cunningham, Pina Bausch and others mid-pose. 

Now in its second year, Bragin says that dance has been particularly successful with the UAE’s polyglot audience. “We showed the choreographer Meredith Monk’s work last year, and I was amazed by the response. Likewise, Trisha’s vocabulary is so international,” he says. “The abstract movement of bodies in spaces–everyone walks, climbs, puts on clothes. It’s about the basics of human activity.”

Trisha Brown: In Plain Site is on at the Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi on 24 and 25 February 2017. nyuad-artscenter.org