Sometimes, rust doesn’t sleep. And badass, rock n’ roll longevity takes the form of a 72-year-old grandmother of four, pacing her loft, demonstrating bits of choreography.
Artist, movement innovator, and Judson Dance Theater alum Trisha Brown is still hot, still fluid, and busier than ever before. “There is so much happening now,” she says, on the edge of her seat and wearing a beat-up Keith Haring T-shirt (the image of the flying TV). “Things are coming at me from every direction.” One of the directions? She is currently preparing a new duet for herself and Elizabeth Streb, to be shown at Danspace Project Gala 2009 on May 12. Brown spoke with the Brooklyn Rail on the eve of her coming season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a program mixing key historical works, Planes (1968) and Glacial Decoy (1979), with two premieres for ballet and opera.
MJ Thompson: Planes involved projecting a film by Jud Yalkut over dancers climbing on a plywood wall with holes cut into it. Who made the original climbing wall?
Trisha Brown: I did. My dad was a pretty good carpenter and when he was done in the garage, I would be in there, fixing bicycles, making things. We were pretty handy. I had good parents.
Rail: Was it built to code?
Brown [laughing]: I don’t think so. I mean, some of it was pretty scary. And that piece was a real challenge, really hard on the dancers. We took risks. Later on, when people were calling me and asking me to do things, I remember one man called and asked if I’d come down to Texas and do “Man Walking Down the Side of Building” on a silo. But I said no. It stopped.
Rail: Could that piece get made today? Or Roof Piece (1973), for instance; did you need a permit?
Brown [laughing]: No. It was exhausting, partly because of the darkness and cold of those spaces [in SoHo]. I was knocking on doors: “Hello, my name is Trisha Brown. I’m a choreographer, I would like very much to put a dance on your roof. Do you have a heart for that?” And then I got my first yes with Leo Castelli and then others came and one by one it came together but I was glad when it was over.
Rail: Was Glacial Decoy a political work?
Brown: Well, I was past the days of trying to understand the rectangle. But I was in the transition from the austere aesthetics of Judson that I was moving towards. You had to be so careful what you chose, or at least I thought you did, because it carried so much weight. And I was sitting at the table with my eight-year-old son who suddenly looked at me and said, “I’d like to go to college.” And I thought how was I ever going to make a college education from dance? How was I going to make a living from dance? I decided then that I had to make the transition into touring, which put a cloak on a certain kind of work, so that was a big step.
Rail: What do you remember of the early process of making Glacial Decoy?
Brown: It began with just scouting the stage, looking for that one particular element.And one of the things they are crazy about all over the world in theaters is, “Don’t touch the velours.” I had come out of a gallery and museum setting and I was curtailed a lot by the requirements of the building.
Rail: One of the most striking aspects of that dance is the series of entrances and exits, with the effect of the dance continuing on off-stage.
Brown: Those entries and exits are slick. They’re hard to perform; the incredible slickness of it! That was work, the movement didn’t have that built into it. Plus the guys who worked backstage, they didn’t want you to touch things. Whereas if I was performing in a gallery I could slam up against a wall, so that was the learning process.
Rail: Did you have any kind of directive for Bob Rauschenberg in terms of the set design?
Brown: Bob and I were very close. I had the best dialogues with him. Bob had a fix on me like no one else. He called me at least once a week, especially when he was in New York, and said, “I’ve got an idea for you.” And I’d say, “Wait, I’m already working on the piece. Write it down, save it for me. And if you have another urge to talk to me call my office, it’s four in the morning.” He had a sterling vision [Thinking for a moment, then demonstrating: hands and arms cutting downwards quickly, away from her face]. Do you remember that part? What I call the “bees going into your face” part? I was working the edges of what was acceptable but at the same time the piece was a study in structuralism and scale and bees going into face.
Rail: The last piece of the BAM season is L’Amour au théâtre, a world premiere of material you are working on for a staging of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opera Hippolyte et Aricie (1733) for Festival l’Aix en Provence in 2010. How did the shift go, from the kind of human-scale of your dance to the epic drama of the opera?
Brown: When I first started, with L’Orfeo, I had to rewrite myself quite a lot because I was one of the ones doing abstract movement and I was leaving that behind. It was terrifying. I just remember starting to work and saying to myself, “If you don’t do the best work of your life, I’ll kill you.” I could just feel time rushing by me. It was 1978.
Rail: What work do you like right now? What’s inspiring you?
Brown: My artwork. That’s going to be one of the two panels at the back of the stage for L’Amour. That’s what I drew, and I draw with my feet and my hands. I wanted to scale down on the drawings, because they are too expensive to store, and too much money to frame, and all of that. Until this, I hadn’t drawn for a long time and I thought I better get to work here and try to get the alacrity back in my hands and I just feel I can do anything with the visual arts…it’s like a free discipline. I have my dancing, and I don’t need this, but…
Rail: With O/zlozony, O/composite, you’re working with ballet. Why?
Brown: I am working with three of the most beautiful étoiles that you’ll ever see in your life and they’re at the top of their careers.
Rail: Was it tricky, bringing your choreography to these classically trained dancers from the Paris Opera Ballet?
Brown: I’m pretty foxy about teasing these things out; in the end, I have to get the materials that I need for the dance. But what I did was develop an alphabet of steps, an A to Z of steps, which turned out to be very, very elegant because they are such beautiful dancers. I said to them, “You have to help me because this is not my world. If I am approaching anything that is cliché, stop me immediately and tell me why. You have to protect me, because I didn’t study ballet and I didn’t want to.” I wanted to access that vocabulary here but not to suspend my own work.
Rail: The dance makes use of poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Czeslaw Milosz; how did they determine the structure?
Brown: They all have letters in them.
Rail: So matching the alphabet of steps with the letters in the sentences of the poems was really a way to achieve a kind of randomness or chance effect? You are not working with the content of the poems?
Brown: If it applies, if I see something that is rich and delicious and vital then I’ll use it.
Rail: You begin working with the ballet lexicon, after some 50 years of refusal: can you say a little more about why?
Brown: It’s that old question: What are you going to do? If you’re going to have so many more years to do things, what are you going to do? And I remember saying years ago, “If I should live for 60 more years, would I have accomplished everything I wanted to?”
Rail: What happens to the technique, after you? There is so much discussion of the uniqueness of the movement; how small, how organic, how elusive, how particular to your own body. Do you envision technique classes 50 years down the road?
Brown: I won’t be a part of that. We’re putting together our archives now and, of course, it will go to the highest bidder because we’ve got to support the company.
Rail: But you don’t necessarily want it codified and taught across the country?
Brown: No. It is taught across the country, there’s a huge group of ex-dancers out there, teaching at colleges and universities and guided by models of the things we did. I’m really proud of that. But that’s not [the goal].
Rail: Do you envision the company enduring? Do you want that?
Brown: I don’t think I can make that demand without raising and putting a substantial amount into the foundation. And I don’t think I’m going to do that. I’ve got four grandkids.
MJ Thompson is a writer living in Brooklyn and Montreal.