Spoleto Festival USA
Have you ever watched a young child tear up the dance floor? They stun with the sheer novelty of their gestures, as they explore the infinite ways in which their bodies can move — instinctively, creatively, without rules. It’s a reminder that at its core, dance is democratic. It is movement as expression. Period.
This liberating principal is the presupposition behind the term “postmodern” — i.e. the rejection of imposed formality or expectations, also known as thinking outside the box. Postmodern dance bucks the idea that dance requires a stage, or musical accompaniment, or emotional expression, or any narrative at all.
Fifty years ago, now legendary choreographer and dancer Trisha Brown embraced this concept and never faltered. Some of her early works took place on multiple roofs of buildings, with the audience viewing from another roof nearby. She floated dancers on rafts across water. She strapped them into harnesses and had them walk perpendicular to walls. In other words, she blew our minds, helping to define the genre of postmodern dance as we know it, raking in accolades such as the MacArthur “genius grant,” the French Legion of Honor, and a National Medal of Arts, among others.
Sadly, due to health issues, Brown choreographed her final pieces in 2011, one of them poignantly titled I’m going to toss my arms — if you catch them they’re yours. And toss she did, passing the reigns of her namesake company, the Trisha Brown Dance Company (TBDC) to two of her long-term dancers and collaborators: artistic associates Carolyn Lucas and Diane Madden.
In 2013, Lucas and Madden launched a three-year world tour to celebrate the works of the revered choreographer and perform her signature pieces. What comes to Spoleto is not a bittersweet retrospective of Brown’s work but rather an assertion of its continued relevance. “Sometimes I think there’s a heavy feeling surrounding the tour from the outside, a perception of finality after Trisha’s retirement,” says Lucas. “We’re always coming back and going ‘No!’ The feeling that we all have is that Trisha’s work on some level is timeless, and there is a desire to continue.”
The four pieces to be presented in the Sottile Theatre span the decades of Brown’s career, beginning with her iconic group piece Set and Reset that Brown choreographed in 1983 in collaboration with visual artist Robert Rauschenberg and musician Laurie Anderson, both experimental visionaries in their own right. Set and Reset, according to Lucas, hails from “a period in time where the world really caught on to Trisha’s genius.”
The solo piece If you couldn’t see me (1994) features another Rauschenberg design, in this case a red dress with a plunging backline, accentuating the ever-shifting spine of a dancer who performs entirely with her back to the audience.
Present Tense (2003) weaves aerial choreography with the piano musings of composer John Cage in a large ensemble piece. And to close, Rogues (2011) features a duet for men, showcasing Brown’s signature knack for making carefully orchestrated, swift movements seem like effortless improvisation, where movement is seemingly spontaneous yet punctiliously scripted.
“The program has a beautiful range to it,” Lucas says. “You can really see Trisha’s evolution. You take a journey. Trisha was dedicated to process in class, allowing subconscious gestures to come out without analyzing them, deeply exploring movement, building phrases into patterns, allowing aberrations to develop.”
It should be noted that the Spoleto works all take place in a stage setting, as opposed to Brown’s earlier site-specific pieces or “happenings” set on rooftops or ponds or gallery spaces or public sculpture gardens. The Spoleto works are what Lucas calls a representation of Brown’s “proscenium works.” At some point early in Brown’s career, the practicality of taking productions on tour (and putting her son through college) meant adapting her postmodern vision to a stage environment, which she did in her own highly individualistic way.
It should also be noted that although Brown’s earliest works were performed in silence, she later introduced music as an element of performance. When asked why by New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay, Brown replied, “I got fed up with listening to all the goddamn coughing.”
With Brown retired, the question looms: what is the future of the company that bears her name? Per Lucas, there is clear hope that the Trisha Brown Dance Company will continue. The format won’t involve new works per se, but rather a combination, or recombination of existing works, or sections of works, and a return to Brown’s early experiments with site-specific settings. “It’s a programmatic model we are working to evolve, and so far, we’ve had such a good response. That was really something that was so telling — just seeing an audience become so quiet, so engaged, and really enjoying Trisha’s work through a different lens.”