Steps into the unknown: the rush of dancing with Trisha Brown

I had seen Trisha Brown’s work in a gallery space, and I loved the sense of mischief between the women performers. But the concert that has imprinted on my memory was at the Whitney Museum in 1971. Three of the pieces blew my mind: Walking on the Wall, so disorienting that it was practically hallucinatory; Falling Duet I with Barbara Dilley, as recklessly risk-taking as if they had been doing tricks on a high wire; and Skymap, in which we, the audience, lay on our backs, looking up and following Trisha’s words on tape while we beamed our imaginations up to the ceiling.

In a haphazard way, I let Trisha know I wanted to dance with her. Twice I ran into her on the street and expressed my interest. No response. Then, waiting in the checkout line at the supermarket I found myself standing next to her. I was surprised that she knew my name. She asked me what I was doing these days. “I’m dancing with Sara Rudner and Kenneth King,” I replied, “but I’m going to stop soon and just do my own work.” Luckily, she ignored my answer and invited me to come to a rehearsal in her loft. That was November 1975. I found out later that one of the reasons she had asked me was that she knew I had studied with Elaine Summers, founder of “the great ball work,” AKA kinetic awareness, and an ally of Trisha’s.

The beginning of my three years with Trisha overlapped with the end of her five years with the improvisatory group Grand Union. When I came to the studio in November 1975, we first worked on making our own movement to fit into a highly complex accumulating and deaccumulating scheme. That was Pyramid. During the same period, she was building the long “Solo Olos” phrase that would go into the larger work Line Up (1976).

When Trisha told us to “line up,” I didn’t know what she meant. But I quickly caught on. She meant: What does a line mean to you – and to your body? She meant she likes to see straight lines, but she also likes messing them up. She meant she wanted to know what lines we could make between the walls and radiator and pipes and each other. Could it mean lining up our energy, could it mean being swept up into a big circular run? Could a perimeter be a line? She wanted to see a range of interpretations.

We created the main part of Line Up through a process of improvisation and recall. We would improvise on the instruction to “line up” for about 10 seconds, then we’d go back and reconstruct what we thought we had just done. Trisha would step out and look at several segments strung together – which wasn’t easy because she was in the piece and all our decisions were interdependent. Then she would keep the segment, or fiddle with it, or rip it up. We accumulated these bits over a year to make the fabric of an hour-long piece, into which Trisha inserted a number of organised “line dances” she had made before.

For the final version of Line Up, we had set our improvisation in choreography, if not in stone. It was not easy for the audience to decipher any pattern in the main lining-up sections. Those long sections appeared as chaos compared to the short, inserted line dances like “Sticks,” “Spanish Dance,” “Eights,” and “Scallops.” The line dances were easy on the eyes, creating a contrast with the less orderly parts that we made through improvisation. New York Times critic Anna Kisselgoff complained that “[a] middle section appears too long and does not make clear to the audience what the dancers’ tasks are.” For us, it was about lines appearing and disappearing, relationships forming and dissolving. As with Grand Union, what one of us chose to do affected all of us.

In the making process, we had to be super-conscious of each other. While improvising and recalling our actions, we were reconstructing memory, with the other women’s bodies as our signposts. We had to realise, again and again, that the person next to us remembered something different in time, space, and gesture. The claim, “Wait, you were on this side of me and your shoulder was here,” would be met with, “No, my right shoulder was in line with Elizabeth’s ear.” Or, “I saw a gap from across the room and was making a line to bridge the gap.” That process of going from thinking we remembered correctly to realising we had it skewed was appealing to Trisha. She wanted to retain that rough-around-the-edges quality instead of polishing it to a sheen.

At one point, she built in a fleeting “surprise moment”. We would pause, and then one of us would leap or flutter or spin or crumble, before we all moved on with the dance. Just anticipating that moment of guessing changes your mental makeup. Who will make the surprise move? Will I be the one? Can I delight or confound my peers with three, action-filled seconds?

Trisha took that unknowingness further. We tried to actually create a new segment in front of the audience. Like Yvonne Rainer in Continuous Project-Altered Daily (1970), the group piece that ultimately broke apart and became the foundation for Grand Union, Trisha wanted to expose the making process. TThat was part of the art for her. I now see that attempt as a continuation of Grand Union’s practice of revealing process.

While I was watching the Tokyo video from December 1975, the overlap between my starting to dance with Trisha and her last performance with Grand Union was brought home to me. Toward the end of the performance, Trisha stood up to perform “Solo Olos”, the very movement phrase she was teaching us back in New York. The intricate sequence is danced forward and backward – hence the title. It was rare for anyone in Grand Union to perform a set work. In the early days, David Gordon ran through all his permutations of Trio A, and Yvonne slipped parts of her first solo, Three Satie Spoons (1961), into the mix at Oberlin College in 1972 when she was off to the side of the stage. But here was Trisha, performing this current transplant from her studio, centre-stage, as a soloist.

In the Tokyo video, after Trisha finishes “Solo Olos,” the other dancers taunt each other to perform a solo while Trisha stretches out on the floor downstage to watch. Steve Paxton delivers a remarkable rendition of it, capturing the steady rhythm, the eccentric openings and closings, the brushing of the hand against the floor, the flat back while lowering the body to the ground. When Barbara Dilley gets up to do a solo, she doesn’t try to emulate “Solo Olos.” Instead, she lopes around the space, then zeroes in on a more rooted dance while Steve tells a story about Barbara’s favourite birds. Expecting to be next in line to dance a solo, David feels put on the spot. He takes his feelings of insecurity — after all, he would be compared to Trisha, Steve, and Barbara – and transforms them into a grandiose act. He sings/wails a song of mock despair (“Do you know what it’s li-i-i-k-e”), strutting and crouching like a rock star.

Watching this video of the Tokyo performance, I realised two things: first, that in a more direct way than I had thought, I was linked to the tail end of Grand Union, and second, that in some way Trisha had already left Grand Union.