DAVID COHEN, Editor           
       December 2003  


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Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dialogue 1961-2001

New Museum of Contemporary Art
583 Broadway
New York, NY 10012

October 10, 2003 to January 25, 2004


Robert Rauschenberg Blind Rosso Porpora Glut (Neopolitan) 1987
assembled objects
Courtesy New Museum of Contemporary Art

Brief history: during the 60's a group of dance mavericks followed the lead of Fluxus performance and Robert Raushenberg and overthrew the boundaries of modern dance. Thus formed Judson Dance Theater (Judson Church, the Unitarian Church on Washington Square, was a legendary venue for experiment in the arts): a radical group of dancers (Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, David Gordon, Deborah Hay, Lucinda Childs and others) and artists (Carolee Schneeman, Robert Morris, Alex Hay). Dance went from a proscenium stage to streets, lofts and rooftops. Ballets were being produced on everyday bodies, with everyday clothes, and everyday movement. But there was nothing casual about it; Judson Dance Theater had broken the rules of the entire field. Not only was it revolutionary in terms of reestablishing dance context and content, it was applicable to formal movement. Chief among Judson's dancers was Trisha Brown, the only Judson member to form her own international touring dance company (Gordon and Childs have pick-up companies).

Back to present: Trisha Brown has successfully led a company for three decades. She codified her own technique and it is now taught around the world. However, much of her dance innovations are lost on a non-dancer audience; it simply looks amazing when performed. Her dancers are far more relaxed than ballet or even classic modern. Perhaps this is something only felt and even more difficult to describe.

Since Judson, the Trisha Brown Dance Company has moved on to performing at opera houses instead of Happenings and makeshift spaces. In fact, it's as a pure dance that she has chosen to make her mark. Her work now could easily be compared to that of Merce Cunningham and other classic moderns, except her elegance graces the casual (trisha's dancers use a technique known as 'release', where they almost look relaxed or nonchalant). The New Museum show doesn't emphasize the artist collaborators of the revolutionary Judson-era work, highlighting instead more recent grandiose efforts by Terry Winters, Robert Raushenberg, Donald Judd, Fujiko Nayaka and Nancy Graves in traditional set and costume design. Instead of the dissolution of hierarchies, the old relationships of costume designer, set designer, composer and choreographer reestablish themselves.

Granted, there is an inherent difficulty in showing dance in a museum setting. Dance generally needs to be seen live in order to be fully understood. The only way to do that in a museum setting is through props, set design and video. One problem with this in any museum show about dance is that it shows everything about dance except what is most interesting: the actual dancing (dance rarely translates well into video). The New Museum curators have attempted to 'jazz things up' by showing Trisha alongside her collaborative artistic luminaries. However, there seems to be a stark contrast upon comparing the Judson era-work to the present day. The Judson pioneers did not relegate artistic collaboration to backdrops and costumes; the visual artists actually choreographed and danced in the productions, and the choreographers made visual works of art. Judson Dance Theater redefined the word "collaboration": there was no distinctive hierarchy between artist, set designer, musician, and even audience member.

The first floor gallery is dedicated to the experimental work of the sixties and seventies (along with a separate space devoted to Raushenberg). The strange turn is the second floor, which looks like a traditional gallery show: showing large-scale paintings, sculptures, prints, some video and drawings by Brown and her collaborators.

Nancy Graves Visage 1982
bronze with polychrome patina
Courtesy New Museum of Contemporary Art

Most of the videos included here were intended for documentation, with a single perspective that lacks any directorial viewpoint. An exception is Jonathan Demme's film short 'Talking Accumulation', on display in the museum window, in which the camera movement really adds another dimension to her work. I just wish the sound could have been heard. The 'Walking on Walls' films and 'Rooftop Dances' are totally amazing works of process art, as well is the set for 'Floor of the Forest', a sculpture of ropes and clothes suspended on pipes, meant for dancers to get inside. That setpiece reminds me of a Gordon Matta-Clark sculpture. The installation is over-crowded with Trisha's odd drawings and some really interesting photos of the Judson-era work. 'Opal Loop,' a stage set consisting of only steam, documented here in video, is a collaboration with Fujiko Nayaka. Although made during the 80's, the way the steam fully integrates itself into the dance recalls interactive works of the 60's and early 70's.

There is also a mannequin representing 'Homemade', a remarkable dance Trisha Brown made with a film projector strapped to her back (showing a sequenced film of Trisha made by Robert Whitman). This dance is one of the great deconstructive moments in Postmodernism, bringing into dance the questioning of the 'real and mediated'. Here that performance is reduced to a trivial mannequin display. The other canonical work 'If You Couldn't See Me,' a solo where Brown never faces the audience (a response to Yvonne Rainer's 'Trio A'), is clumsily projected in the hallway upstairs. In general, I would have preferred curatorial emphasis on the early works, which would have put Trisha Brown in favorable comparison to conceptual artists like Yvonne Rainer, Bruce Nauman and Joan Jonas.

The collaborations with Robert Raushenberg, like his most recent art, are a little bit soulless, unlike the earlier paintings Raushenberg made with Merce Cunningham's company. Although the set for 'Glacial Decoy' is austere and memorable (a series of projected photo works Raushenberg made in Florida), it only completes itself with the quartet of dancers. Again, the use of dancing mannequins (wearing Raushenberg costumes) is an extremely silly stand-in for actual dancing.

The second floor appears as a traditional gallery of art works (drawing, painting, and sculpture) by Winters, Judd, Graves, Raushenberg and drawings by Brown herself. Here also are the corresponding dance collaborations shown on small video monitors, but they almost could be missed alongside such massive paintings and sculpture. I suppose that to reaffirm Trisha's place as a great composer, they chose to display her alongside great compositions, but the end result is confusing. Some of the works presented here aren't even objects used in the Brown dances and actually stray from the theme of collaboration. Since there is little need for any of these artists to gain more exposure, it seems the curators included these works to justify her 'art world' importance.

There is ahistorical precedenceto Brown's conception of herself as a kind of painter/sculptorin the example of Martha Graham who took inspiration from her sculptural muse Isamu Noguchi. in the same spirit, there are formal similarities in the way Brown choreographs and her chosen artists paint or sculpt. In this show, however, Brown's collaborators come across as 'just art' (which is unlike the New Museum). I would have preferred a new multi-channel video installation showing a Trisha Brown dance. They could have recruited someone like Video Dance impresario Charles Atlas to do the filming, and then there would be something more akin to seeing Trisha's dance.

I happened to visit the show on a day when Trisha Brown's Dance Company gave an early evening live performance. When I saw 'Accumulation?' (the hitchhiker solo) being performed to 'Uncle John's Band' by the Grateful Dead, I knew why I had really come here. I won't even go into how turned on I was by the quartet of moving hips in 'Spanish Dance' set to music by Bob Dylan. Even the 'moon-unit' Raushenberg sets and John Cage music all made complete sense in 'Astral Convertible.' The fact is Trisha Brown's art is a mix of sexy/conceptual in a way unlike that of any other artist. Even after four decades, her choreography still remains vital. She may even hold the claim of being the world's most important and influential living choreographer. I just wish you could tell that from this exhibition.

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