The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
The task of describing Trisha Brown’s unique form of dancing is daunting. Its inscrutable blend of zaniness, athleticism, delicacy, and logic, always evading mimetic cliches, similarly eludes language, like a half-forgotten word or phrase that can’t quite roll off the tip of the tongue. I must confess I have been an unabashed fan of Trisha’s work since meeting her at Ann Halprin’s summer workshop in 1960. Two images of Trisha from that period remain upmost in my memory. She could sit on the floor with legs spread 180 degrees and lean forward so that her belly touched the floor. She did a solo improvisation with a long-handled push broom. The action of thrusting the broom forward catapulted her body horizontally into the air, parallel to the ground. The mundane and spectacular all in one go.
Yvonne Rainer Since your concert last night at Damrosch Park is fresh in my mind and fresh in your body, maybe we should talk about that—dancing al fresco. I’ll start with a response I had to the marching band music during Foray Forêt. The music was different from what I had heard in previous performances. It was more like the circus than like Sousa, more Felliniesque than militaristic, giving the dance a lighter, less ironic feeling. Also the phrases and rhythms of the dance seemed to converge more frequently with the rhythms of the music.
Trisha Brown That’s coincidental. The music was not live last night. We used a recording from the premiere performance in Lyon in 1989, which was the first time I maneuvered the band around the exterior of the theater and made choices on when the music would be playing and when it would not be, relevant to the dance. My intention is always to create the impression that some band is practicing or marching in the vicinity of the theater—that the two entities are distinctly separate. Now I like a bit more music with the dance than I did originally, so what you heard last night was more spare. For instance my solo at the very end—it’s in silence on the score you heard last night. I like for the music to come with me into that solo.
YR It’s interesting to compare your two solos—the one in Foray Forêt and the one in For M.G.: The Movie. For one thing, the costuming in these dances creates totally different effects: the flowing gown in Foray Forêt in contrast to the unitard in For M.G.: The Movie. In MG, one becomes riveted to your very exposed body doing these spare, odd, unpredictable things… . Could you talk about revealing the body and how you seem to be taking, as I see it, more risks in the way the costuming works: I mean the unitards and the way your dancers face upstage, so the rear of the body is exposed. It’s taken me years to get used to that. Now I see it as both transgressive and legitimating, of the female body and the aging female body.
TB What do you mean by transgressive?
YR Well, it’s daring, it’s risky. In MG, you don’t swathe your body in veils, for one thing!
TB Costumes are made before dances are finished. When I realized I was going into MG, the thought occurred, Oh no, unitards! They are a weird form of nudity. I was self-conscious at first, but now, clothed in a choreography, I focus on the bigger challenge, dancing as well as the people around me.
YR And then there’s what you have done choreographically when the dancers face upstage.
TB The back side of the body is neutral because there is no face on it. In MG, the figure who stands throughout the piece with his back to the audience, Kevin Kortan, is neutral and anonymous. If he faced the audience you would have an expectation that he might do something. With his back to the audience he’s everyman, and that’s his role, he’s that character. I placed him there also to anchor Diane Madden’s solo, which is that huge running and walking balance through gradations of falling into walking into running and back again. I clarify that because there are some writers, especially in London, who refer to this woman running hysterically around the space.
TB Yeah, because it’s a woman, right? If she’s running, she’s hysterical. In fact she doesn’t run the entire time, and I’ve never seen anyone alter their vertical posture with more precision.
YR Yes, it’s very subtle.
TB And eloquent. She’s not at all hysterical, she’s in perfect balance. I learn things after I make these choices, and I might add that I’ve tried a woman in the standing position, and when the man turns around to take the bow at the end of the piece the crowd goes wild, and when the woman turns around there is just a little applause.
YR Isn’t that weird? What do you make of that? For the man it’s heroic, and for the woman it’s nothing.
TB The man has more power automatically, standing there—he obviously is doing something …
YR … and if the woman does it she’s perceived as doing nothing. What I was trying to get at before, though, has to do with the buttocks, especially female buttocks.
In the ballet, you’re used to looking at male buttocks—I mean they’re on display, and it’s what a lot of people go to the ballet for. The male buttocks are always exposed, and women’s, never. Even when women are in the Balanchine abstract costume of black and white—the leotard covers the buttocks and you don’t have that uninterrupted line of thigh to ass, or tights or unitard accentuating the buttocks.
TB I look at this every day, I look at these bodies and that’s all I have. I suppose I could cloak them. But to me, my democracies extend past taboos into my right to fully use the body facing in any direction, going through the basic mechanical moves. Bending at the hips is major material. I come to it from looking at the body all day long, and seeing it really as sculpture. The first time I put them in unitards in Newark, I had been working with an idea about drawing—making these diagrams in the air with their body parts. They were very precise. They were based on the vertical, horizontal, circular, and diagonal division of a square. I adored those lines, the purity of them, and Donald Judd’s suggestion—we worked on costumes together—was that they not be so tight. He wanted them to be in two pieces, and looser around the arms. I had been looking at these bare arms doing these precise moves, and I didn’t like it that they now had loose fabric making folds at the elbow, shoulder, wrist, and I said no, for this piece it must be a unitard …
YR As your company has grown and gained more recognition how has the kind of venues that you perform in changed?
TB Well, we do an extensive amount of touring in Europe, especially in France, where we’re in major opera houses. We also go to smaller theaters out in the regions. The work has been seen in France since 1973, almost every year since then, so they’ve grown up with the work and are very current. In fact, most of the recent dances I’ve made have been commissioned in France.
YR Is that going to change now with the new political regime in France?
TB With the economy, it has changed already—there’s less touring there. We have commissions that were established several years ago, so those will play out over the next three years. I really won’t know until after that how things will change …
YR What does the title For M.G.: The Movie refer to?
TB M.G. is Michel Guy [former French Minister of Culture]. “The Movie” is a clue for the audience that I was working with the idea of trying to make a figure materialize on the stage, whole, without your seeing the mechanics of getting there.
YR Is the figure a stand-in for Michel Guy?
TB No. Some people have made that interpretation, but, no. Michel commissioned the dance. There were several conversations—enigmatic conversations about dance and art and my work, what did I want, what was I thinking about. I didn’t know he was dying at that time. He died before I made the dance, but he and those encounters remained in mind, guiding my effort to transmit enigmatic behavior onto the stage. The movie part of it has to do with making a figure materialize in the space the way you can when you edit a film. You can go from a fork to a face with a blink of the eye, to quote you.
YR To quote me?
TB Yes. What you said about Steve Paxton—a live performance goes by faster than the blink of an eye.
YR Oh, because he performs so infrequently. It sounds like a Brownism.
TB I’ve learned a lot from your language.
YR The standing figure is the opposite of a quick edit—he’s constant.
TB Yes, but Niki Juralewicz stands immediately downstage of him. She begins out of nowhere, masked by their long stillness. I enter upstage left; I step only when there’s activity somewhere else on the stage, which I’m fairly sure has taken the audience’s eye away from me.
YR Sometimes you use the wings like a film frame. Parts of limbs are cut by the wings, someone reaching out to hold another performer—only an arm showing. Or to reach out to pull another performer offstage. The edges of the frame are very active.
TB The edge was very active in Foray Forêt. I wanted a buzzer to go off every time someone entered or exited. I didn’t want any of those slick grands jetés out of the space … Like where did they go? You hear “crash.”
YR Or where did they come from? Like the Godard movie Sauve Qui Peut where they sit at the bar and she says “Where’s that music coming from?”
TB So in Foray Forêt, that was one of my objectives, or themes—to make trouble at the border. Everyone trying to leave is held out there for a little longer, or they’re standing there and get jerked off or they’re running by and get pushed on … all of those things. Or the idea that the stage was a pool—the atmosphere changes as you go into it or out of it. You have to think before you dive in or look for the ladder to get out. MG is the next piece, and I wanted nothing to do with the border. I wanted magical manifestations of figures in the space.
YR It’s funny, all these spacial and atmospheric metaphors in your work that are never extended. When you said “trouble at the border” we laughed because it immediately invoked all kinds of border crossings. But topical political content is the last thing on your mind when you go to a Trisha Brown concert. Current critical theory is much concerned with trouble at the borders of identities—sexual, cultural, racial, and gender border crossings, so to speak, which challenge traditional social positioning. You have very steadfastly maintained your commitment to dance as a physical abstraction. This may be a contradiction, but as soon as you, Trisha, get into verbalizing and description, these metaphors come to the surface which we also sense as we watch. And that’s what makes your work so rich even though there’s no foregrounded social or literary specificity.
TB I am well aware there is more to dance than elegant vocabulary and deployment of dancers and it ain’t boy meets girl to music. Imagery and metaphor imbue a phrase with a particular look and feel. One of the ongoing metaphors in MG was time. Not metered time or measured time but stranger notions like the volume of time, past time, time peeling away.
In MG, I introduced Wil Swanson as a character, a benevolent character who’s lost in a form which is totally unfamiliar to him. He sees a gesture and starts to reach for it and it’s gone. He’s not aggressive. He’s walking around in the middle of a duet like the spectator who doesn’t recognize his object at close range. I don’t know if the audience gets it.
YR Because you don’t make story dances, there are no characters. But when one person is doing something qualitatively different from the others, you may begin to read him as a character. I do remember that trio. But I didn’t interpret it moment by moment. If you meant for that to happen you would make a different kind of dance.
TB No, I don’t want you to interpret it moment by moment In fact, again in MG there is a guiding principle about enigma, the action must both suggest and elude interpretation. Niki drifts in on me at the end, and drifts out and you don’t know what she is doing. It’s a remarkable piece of acting because it’s hard to look so unspecific while you are interrupting the choreographer’s solo. In that confusion of a trio with a duet, interfacing relationships are refracting all over the space.
YR This gets back to what we were talking about earlier. One kind of border is where abstract movement edges into specific allusion. For instance, your entrance at the end of Foray Forêt is like that of a high priestess entering the temple of Terpsichore as her acolytes retreat before her. It is here that the dance breaks out of the ambiguity which normally works to suppress such meanings, thus producing another kind of tension. Does it ever happen in rehearsal, that your dancers do something that for you crosses over into this overly specific meaning, like priestess, animals, plants, religion, gridlock?
TB The most familiar admonition from me to them is “That looks too much like modern dance.” The fumigation police are called immediately.
YR Whose modern dance turns up in your rehearsals? What era?
TB Uh oh. Another kind of police will come now. Lyricism that over-extends into yearning, cliched emotion, preposterous posturing.
YR It’s always there waiting, right?
TB It’s in our training … we all know it. The torso as an expressive instrument augmented by the arms, legs, and head to spiral and arch into forms that bear emotional connotation.
YR You’re talking about certain conventions of representing emotions that we rebelled against in the early ’60s. Those conventions are hard to keep down.
TB But then the other side of this is that during Newark, I realized that the combination of two mechanically derived motions conducted at the same time—folding the arms up and rounding and dropping the head forward—if the two collide, looks like a person wailing. That fascinated me, and from then on I’ve been looking for that edge between mechanically derived motion or action and emotional affect.
YR What do you mean by “mechanically derived?”
TB When I give myself an instruction, when you’re standing there and you’re trying to figure out what to do and you give yourself an instruction … One arm goes up, buckle your left knee and take the fall out, see what happens, that kind of thing. Well, that’s what I mean by a mechanical instruction. And then it means something, like you’re saluting the American flag.
YR Yeah, right. You have to watch out for that one.
TB But then there’s an edge to it where it’s really interesting—to trigger a recognizable gesture and then mediate it immediately with something else.
YR Yes, well that’s what’s so fascinating, the way you use gestures and rub them out, erase them, or ride over them. A dance gesture so easily invokes both the quotidian and the symbolic.
TB Everyone knows them. You look at them and read them all day long.
YR The ones I like … Sometimes a foot will flex and a hand, just a hand will move. I mean these extremities that suddenly come into unison on the body. You have a couple of those in MG. Probably a lot of them.
TB There are layers of intensity in the actions cast throughout the body, so we tend to look at the larger stroke of things, but depending on that dialogue between me and my viewer’s eye, it’s a matter of where do I make them look next.
YR But it means that the rest of the body has to be so still for those small details, for the extremes to register, and that’s where the training comes in. You have to be that still on one leg in order to make these ordinary gestures visible.
TB You mentioned that I obscure, erase, ride over gestures and this is true. I retain a modicum of privacy while on full view in performance by purposely complicating an uncanny moment, feeling certain the audience can’t see it all.
YR But this brings to mind another characteristic of your dancing. It’s like starting out with a body that doesn’t know itself, and the agency of movement has to be visible. You take this to a point where one limb will actually initiate action on another limb and set up a series of events, and that happens between people as well—someone will hook someone’s leg in passing and that will precipitate a whole set of moves. And so there is often a visibility of cause and effect, and a wonderful, zany logic in these seemingly accidental, casual encounters.
TB Motivation to move is a big issue for me. What catalyzes an action. Mainly because so much of what I do comes from a physical source, so I’m always up against that question.
YR Well, all dance comes from a physical source.
TB Some choreographers take inspiration from music—both structure and temperament … and other sources. My sources are generally ideas and movement. Different each time out. I think the subject of abstraction generating multiple non-specific meanings is where I’m working right now.
YR What do you think of these classical references that come up in your work? It started for me in Set and Reset, the Egyptian motifs, the flattened out, twisting of the torso against hips. This gets more mythified in Foray Forêt with your entrance in the long dress. I know you never thought of that religious connotation, but how do you feel about that? I’m sure I’m not the first person to have made that observation.
TB Someone commented on the classical, formal arrangement of dancers placed in the wings like statuary. I’m not altogether comfortable with the aspect of the priestess entering, but I accept it. I accept it on the grounds that I had pretty much stopped dancing just before that and the making of that solo was my return to dancing.
YR I wasn’t aware that you had stopped.
TB I was grinding to a halt. I think I was still in pieces. Those were the years that my mother was dying, and I really was moving less and less as she moved less and less. After she died, the summer that she died, I realized that it wasn’t me that was dying, and that I perhaps could still dance and I embarked on that solo.
YR So it is like a wraith coming back.
TB It is. But also, there are a complex set of factors that determine the outcome of a new dance, a kind of negotiation between reality and imagination.
Foray was built in modules or units with the intention that the order could be reshuffled at any time to keep the creative process going, and of course, never did, because there’s so little time for creativity in this business. The relationship of priestess to acolyte, this unit to that unit, was considered, at the time, to be just one of many possibilities.
The exit of the quartet, on which I enter, was created through a process of improvising on a known phrase in small increments and memorizing it. I further imposed the direction to exit stage left, which paralyzed them. I solved the problem by suggesting that they keep the form but back up four steps every 15 seconds which backed them off stage right. Instead of a cross fade between two units, we now have a cause and effect. This process is gorgeous and frustrating—half improvisation, half fixed phrase and half miscellaneous human factors like hope, experience, etc. My job is to guide them to make wondrous choices without diminishing their spirit.
YR That brings up the question of the degree of autonomy that you give your dancers while you’re building choreography, in contrast to the indeterminacy of free choices within the performance itself, as in Another Story … as in falling.
TB I will do anything to get a good dance, invent new methods, employ trickery, endure experimentation—basically, I create new phrases on them or me or somewhere in between. It’s a collaboration. Then we come together in the theater to mix the phrases into a choreography. I have a set of ideas, plans, they know them, we try things. If it doesn’t work, we try something else. Their errors or misunderstandings or physical proposals may be incorporated. It’s a kind of mundane magic. I create an environment that allows my dancers to pitch themselves at an idea. If they do it, I use it or redirect it; if they don’t, I come up with another idea.
YR Within that process, how do you come up with dangerous partnering?
TB We work on dangerous things in separate rehearsals. There’s a wild entrance for Di into a duet with Carolyn Lucas in Foray. Understanding that the airborne ballerina in le grand jeté(woman doing the splits in a leap) as caught in photographs is a cliche, I proposed to Di, Wil, and Lance Gries that she also could be a turnstile if they ran at each other from opposite directions and the two men leapt hitting her extended legs front and back as she executes a grand jeté center stage. They did, she spun in the air dropping down into perfect synch with Carolyn to do a slow, refined duet and the two men passed through.
YR Your performance last night was so special because it was a rain date. You had gotten rained out the previous night, and then the skies cleared in the late afternoon, and there we were sitting in the open air, and in the last ten minutes of Foray Forêt it started to rain. At the very end of your intense solo the rain started coming down, but ever so gently. It was like the heavens were still giving you a stay of … What would you call it?
TB A stay of execution.
YR Yes, a stay of weather execution. It was a very fitting ending.
TB It was a thrilling experience for me, not only because I grew up in a rain forest, but usually even dew on a marley floor, the black, rubberized surface on the stage, will make it more slippery than ice. It can be deadly. But then I realized that there was a little roughness to this one, so they must have a weatherized version at Damrosch. I noticed that something was a little weird about the atmosphere—there was a kind of rattle throughout the audience …
YR People were starting to leave.
TB I didn’t know what was going on for a second—I thought a moth was diving at me, and then I saw it was raining. With the lighting each raindrop was made more plump and kind of sculpted by color, amber … and then I thought, “It’s snowing!” I unraveled for about two and a half seconds, then quickly ran through who has to move fast between now and the end of the piece which was very near at hand. I realized no one did, that I was the most active of everyone and that I could handle everything. It was just sheer pleasure from then on.
Yvonne Rainer made dances from 1960 to 1975 before turning to film. She is currently working on a seventh film script (tentative title: MURDER & murder). One of its characters is a sixty year old lesbian performance artist.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.