Trisha Brown once said she preferred “the human way” of moving, and that this was the approach she took to dancemaking. While the scope of her works and their locations have varied through the years—she’s placed dancers on rooftops and on the sides of walls, as well as on the world’s major opera house stages—there is a common thread running through Brown’s work. For four decades, her dances have incorporated pedestrian movements, and she works with a keen understanding of the cause-and-effect relationship that is transferred through a body in motion.
Brown was a founding member of the experimental Judson Dance Theater in the early ’60s, where she and her peers rejected the technical virtuosity and thematic content that ruled modern dance at the time, focusing instead on pedestrian gestures and stark staging. Brown started her own renowned group, the Trisha Brown Dance Company, in 1970. Her unique vision of movement has since earned her two John Simon Guggenheim Fellowships, the MacArthur (“Genius Grant”) Foundation Fellowship (she was its first female recipient for choreography), and the National Medal of Arts in 2003. What’s her movement style really all about? Read on.
How to Prepare for Class
Since Brown’s choreography pays close attention to the natural order of events experienced by a body in motion, Trisha Brown Dance Company member Tamara Riewe recommends that students pay attention to the body’s domino effect. “The next time you wave good-bye, for instance,” Riewe suggests, “observe how the movement in one joint impacts movement in the other joints. What happens as the weight of the forearm drops into the elbow as you lower your arm?” She says awareness of those kinds of details, and the order in which they occur, are key to Brown’s repertory.
“Trisha Brown’s work isn’t about getting a shape right,” says Riewe. Instead, it’s about how that shape is formed and set into motion. “In trying to work and learn quickly, dancers get used to identifying shapes and trying to replicate them. There’s a tendency to look at something and think, ‘Oh, I recognize that step,’ and move on, when in fact, what was really important was the order of movements.”
Although Trisha Brown’s work has not been codified into a technique, many teachers approach class at the Trisha Brown Studio in the same way. “Classes almost always start on the floor,” Riewe says. “Teachers usually use some kind of somatic body work, like Alexander Technique, Klein Technique or yoga. This creates an awareness of the joints, and of the breath”—two important elements in Brown’s movement.
When standing, attention is paid to creating a plumb line in the body so that dancers learn to use as little effort as possible to stack the skeleton in a nice, clear line. “There will almost always be some kind of recognizable foot and hip work,” adds Riewe. When approaching pliés, tendus and other familiar class elements, students are asked to work with the idea of moving from the skeleton—as opposed to taking a muscle-based approach. Because Alexander Technique is a major influence on Brown’s work, you may look at pliés with the goal of developing a sense of connection between the head and the pelvis, and the heels and the pelvis—referred to as the head-tail and heel-tail connections.
Students will also encounter movement that will help them experience the full arc of the body in motion. “There’s a real focus on the natural fall of weight,” Riewe says. “We do a lot where the weight shifts so far to the front, for instance, that there is a sense of falling forward until the body is actually in motion and the dancer begins to run.”
In a typical two-hour class, expect to spend at least 45 minutes learning some of Trisha Brown’s repertory. TBDC members (several of whom also teach) are committed to their role in keeping Brown’s work alive. And for dancers new to a choreographer’s movement ideas and vocabulary, there is rarely a better way to gain an understanding of those ideas than to actually learn works in the rep.
“So much of Brown’s work is about the order of events,” says Riewe, “so students really have to keep their eyes open.” Pay close attention to the details as the teacher demonstrates a movement, in order to make that movement flow organically, and stay focused. “You can’t just listen,” Riewe adds. “It’s not ballet, where you hear a step and it’s going to mean the same thing it meant someplace else. You really have to watch the teacher and observe where the weight shifts and which joint moved first in order to understand the movement’s purpose.”
Joshua Legg teaches for Harvard University’s Dance Program and the Theatre Department at Suffolk University.