We Should All Walk on Sides of Buildings.

A Tribue to Trisha Brown

By Kathryn McLane.

 PHOTOGRAPHY: NEW YORK TIMES

PHOTOGRAPHY: NEW YORK TIMES

 
 

Accompanied only by the ambient sounds of New York City, dancers scattered across rooftops form an extension of the skyline. Just as the traffic below, the dancers move all at once, though not in unison. Their playful torso and hip movements are punctuated by those more angular and precise, but all are performed with an organic ease.  

Trisha Brown, the architect of this 1971 “Roof Piece,” passed away on March 18, 2017 at the age of 80. Sitting over replays of her past work to create a closing tribute of some form. I realized Brown shaped American post-modern dance with her unique style of movement that challenged classic traditional modern dance practices. To truly understand the magnitude of her influence, it is necessary to contextualize her work within its time.

Brown began choreographing in New York in the early 1960s. Her avant-garde works stood in opposition to more formalized ballet and modern dance techniques prevalent at the time. In 1962, driven by her search for an untraditional performance space, Trisha helped to found the Judson Dance Theater, a collective of artists that challenged the established structure and style of modern dance.

In 1970 she founded the Trisha Brown Dance Company, through which she continued to create work in unconventional spaces and often in silence. She explored the limits of physical familiarity with pieces such as “Man Walking down the Side of a Building” (1970) in which a man quite literally walks down the side of a building while suspended perpendicular to the surface, and similarly with a group of dancers in “Walking on a Wall” (1971). Later in her career, Brown created more conventional concert dance pieces set to music (e.g. “Set and Reset,” 1983), which still relied upon her natural and seemingly improvisational style of movement. Many of her pieces are defined by this playful and improvised quality.

This experimental style of movement is apparent in her 1971 piece, “Accumulation.” As the title suggests, Brown explores the development of a series of simple, progressive movements that build upon one another. She moves with purpose and with a colloquial familiarity, lulling the viewer into the rhythm of her cyclical pattern of movement, only to jar them with an abrupt end to the movement and the piece.

Perhaps the appeal of Brown’s work lies in the simplicity and informality of her movement, which can be performed by both the trained and untrained dancer. In its time, her work confronted established cultural norms while still maintaining a unique, relatable quality of movement. Today, it remains relevant, particularly in the context of an environment in which concert dance seems to be giving way to less formal and more experimental art.

Brown was a woman beyond her time, and she is gone too soon. Her innovative work laid the foundation for continued dance innovation, and it will undoubtedly continue to influence artists for years to come. Having now to rely only on video and images to pay tribute to such a force seems unfair. However, even through these mediums we can understand Brown's influence and her role in challenging the established boundaries of dance. So, we thank you, Trisha Brown, for reminding us to walk always on the side of the building.