Mentored by a Master

Choreographer Trisha Brown and her protégé Lee Serle. Photo by Rolex/Bart Michiels.

The Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative pairs talented young artists with luminaries in their respective fields for year-long mentorships. This year, Trisha Brown chose to mentor 29-year-old Australian dancer and emerging choreographer Lee Serle. In Australia, Lee performs with the cutting-edge ensembles Chunky Move and Lucy Guerin Inc. Brown, a postmodern dance pioneer, influenced a generation with her flyaway movement and clear structures. As part of the Judson Dance Theater in the 1960s, Brown challenged perceptions about what is and isn’t considered dance, often featuring pedestrian movement in her choreography. Today, she continues to create unadorned yet sophisticated works for her NYC-based company. As Brown’s protégé, Lee gets the opportunity to work alongside her, training and performing with the Trisha Brown Dance Company. Here, Lee describes the first few months of his year in NYC. —Katie Rolnick

July 23, 2010
I’ve arrived in NYC to the extreme heat of summer, leaving the cold Melbourne winter behind. I have mixed feelings right now, but mostly I’m excited. In February 2010, I was one of three finalists selected by a panel of artists from across the globe to audition for Trisha Brown. We each performed a solo and I chose to do my own short piece, A Little Murky, which I choreographed and performed in Melbourne in 2008. Then, Samuel von Wentz and Nicholas Strafaccia, two of her company members, taught us some of Trisha’s repertoire. When I received the news a few weeks later that Trisha had selected me to be her protégé, I was overwhelmed. It’s a daunting but thrilling prospect to be mentored by one of contemporary dance’s great choreographers.

Though I’m a little nervous, I take comfort in having met Trisha earlier this year at my audition. During that first meeting, I felt at ease in her gentle presence. I could see that she has a wonderful sense of humor and is a great storyteller. After we spoke together in the studio, we went for a walk around NYC. I was captivated listening to her talk about the city, how it has changed over the years and her experience of being an artist here.

Having had little exposure to Trisha’s work in Australia, I feel lucky to be given the opportunity to work with the Trisha Brown Dance Company in its 40th year. From what I know so far, the company will be presenting a range of repertoire over the coming year, both early and more recent pieces. It will be amazing for me to see such a large volume of Trisha’s work and even perform some of it.

Lee (far left) and the Trisha Brown Dance Company performing “Figure Eight” (1974) in Lyon, France. Photo by Rolex/Marc Vanappelghem.

August 24, 2010
I’ve been observing the Trisha Brown Dance Company rehearse for a few weeks at the Joyce SoHo studios. The dancers have been working on several pieces, including Opal Loop, Foray Forêt, L’Amour au théâter and You can see us. Carolyn Lucas, the choreographic assistant, and Diane Madden, the rehearsal director, have been running rehearsals. (Both danced with the company for several years in the 1980s.) I wonder if it’s a challenge for the dancers working on so many pieces at once. I’ve been learning some of the material but have also been watching a lot, which has been a beneficial experience for me—you don’t always get the chance to stand back and observe rehearsal as a dancer. The company is incredible. Each dancer is technically proficient and executes the work with total accuracy, yet all have individual personalities and styles. Watching them helps me analyze my own dancing and habits.

I recently found out I’ll be learning some of Trisha’s works from the 1970s. We’ll perform them on tour in Lyon, France, and then at The Whitney Museum in October and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in January 2011. The pieces are a series of investigations of movement, such as counterbalance, falling and catching. They also incorporate various apparatuses, such as harnesses, which allow the performer to be suspended from the ceiling or walk along the wall. They challenge gravity and balance and display risk and playfulness. I can’t wait to walk on the walls of The Whitney!

October 16, 2010
Today, I’m nervous. We’re in London for the Dance Umbrella festival and I’m hosting a panel with Trisha and the company. The idea is to provide some insight about what it’s like to dance for Trisha Brown and for the company members to share some of their experiences with the audience. I’ve never hosted a talk before and am a little scared of public speaking—so this should be interesting.

So far, so good! The talk went well. The highlight for me was when Trisha got up to demonstrate how she creates her drawings (Trisha also draws). She uses her entire body to make them and with one fell swoop she slid out along the floor to demonstrate her technique. You could imagine charcoal between her fingers and toes creating large sweeping lines and markings.

November 4, 2010
We’re back in NYC and for the past two weeks I’ve been working in the studio with Trisha, Carolyn and Diane, developing a new piece, which will premiere in the fall of 2011. We’ve been exploring ideas through improvisation. We begin with an image or quality, such as knots or calligraphy. To start the improvisation, Trisha gives the first step or initiation from which we can build. It’s amazing to see her bound fearlessly through the studio. The process is fairly open and free in these beginning stages. I’m excited to be part of the work’s development and intrigued to see where it will go from here.

Brown creating one of her drawings. Photo by Gene Pittman.

November 16, 2010
Today, I’m at the MoMA for the opening of “On Line: Drawing Through the Twentieth Century,” which features one of Trisha’s pieces (this is the first time her art has been shown at the museum). I’m so encouraged seeing Trisha continue to receive such accolades.

My experience working with Trisha has been very rewarding so far. I continue to learn from and be inspired by her. A lot of the dance work I’ve been involved with (including my own choreography) has been quite theatrical and has incorporated multimedia elements. But Trisha’s work mostly focuses on the purity of dance movement vocabulary. It’s been extremely valuable for me to view dance again in this way and really appreciate its complexity and beauty.

Editor’s note: Lee’s year as Trisha Brown’s protégé concludes in July. He’ll present a new piece at the Rolex Arts Weekend in NYC in November.

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