Harvard hails choreographer Trisha Brown

Edited by Alicia Anstead NF '08

The following post was written in 2013. Trisha Brown passed away on March 18, 2017. Read the New York Times obituary here

Iconic post-modern choreographer Trisha Brown recently announced that she will retire from making new work due to health reasons. In the wake of this announcement, Harvard undergraduate and alumni dancers take a moment to celebrate the profound impact of her creative life and works.

Trisha Brown
Trisha Brown in "Watermotor." PHOTO: Babette Mangolte 1978 COURTESY: trishabrowncompany.org
Megan Murdock '14

My sophomore year, I had the incredible opportunity to perform Trisha Brown’s Floor of the Forest at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston. As a dancer who has focused on modern and ballet performance for most of my career, this was a completely new experience for me. Trisha’s pedestrian style of movement was a great way for me to explore a new movement style and to delve into improvisation. The piece was part of the Dance/Draw exhibit which focused on the translation of movement into visual art. Floor of the Forest was performed in one of the rooms of the exhibit, and the structure was left as a piece of art when dancers we not engaging with it. The audience is encouraged to wander around the structure, to keep observing from a variety of angles. The piece was structured around a 4-foot-high, 10-by-10-foot rope grid structure, on which the entire dance took place. Clothing was hung in the holes between the ropes, and the piece consisted of dancers climbing on the ropes and trying on outfits while aiming to be completely supported by the clothing, rather than keeping their weight on the ropes.

The idea for the piece came from a flea-market: observing the crowds of people milling about trying on new clothing to buy. As a dancer, the process of learning the piece and the performances themselves were an unusual experience for me. Rather than learning set choreography, we were taught the score for the piece and practiced getting ourselves into and out of the clothing. We practiced doing the piece with several partners and worked on creating interesting images while hanging in the clothing that matched what Trisha Brown would have preferred. The piece was entirely improvisational, had more than 20 minutes of silence, and our objective was to put on three outfits and to pause after each outfit, while hanging in the clothing in unusual shapes. I really enjoyed playing with the clothing and finding new ways to hang and be supported by the clothing. Rather than focusing on technique, I had the opportunity to focus on making interesting shapes and figuring out the mechanics of hanging in various fabrics.

Mackenzie Dolginow '13

As a newcomer to Trisha Brown's choreography just as she is leaving the field of dance, I am struck by, in the few works of hers that I have seen (Accumulation, Set and Reset), the effect she is able to create by the accumulation of simple movements. Accumulation begins with Brown in a tight spotlight and long skirt performing a simple flipping hand motion. After a number of repetitions, she adds in a new movement element: one hand adjusts its path and begins to move up and down instead of just flipping. After an equivalent number of repetitions, Brown adds in another movement element: a twitching foot. This steady accumulation of simple movements continues and the phrase becomes longer and more complex, though each added movement is simple in itself.

The reason this piece is so striking is that it feels like a window into process. In my limited experience, a dance is typically presented on stage as a polished, complex whole with a prolific but hidden history of rehearsals, discarded material, and choreographic edits that you will never know or see. In this single piece, it's as though the architect, the builder, sits before us with all her tools -- an unmoving head, a dangling hand, a free foot, all waiting at the ready -- and we get an inside look at the process as she begins building before us, carrying her whole history of movement choices into the present as the phrase is continually repeated and added to. And the phrase stops suddenly, without much warning. You don't realize the climax has happened until the sudden dearth of motion creates a climax– in retrospect, an effect perhaps not dissimilar to Brown's more recent departure from choreography.

Marin Orlosky-Randow '07-'08

Last winter, I had the privilege of joining Megan Murdock '14 and several other local dancers in performing Trisha Brown's work Floor of the Forest at the ICA in Boston. Part of our rehearsals for the piece involved watching archival footage of Brown performing her own works (including Floor of the Forest and Watermotor) looking for the subtleties in the quality of her movement. When we practiced performing the piece in the gallery, we discovered that her relaxed, playful appearance on the videos was deceiving--dancing Floor of the Forest was like solving a puzzle for an exhausting, exhilarating 20 minutes. Tony Orrico, the Trisha Brown Company dancer teaching us the piece, stressed the importance of being honest with the audience: "If you're having fun, let them see it. If you're struggling, let them see that too. Dancers are often afraid to let people see them struggle, but if the audience knows you're stuck, they will root for you and celebrate with you when you succeed."

Stanford Makishi '87, Trisha Brown Company dancer 1991-2006

"Keep it simple" were words Trisha Brown used to guide herself through her creative process, and she showed us that elegance and economy are the underpinnings of depth and meaningful complexity. The terrain of her choreography – with its enigmatic movement vocabulary, mysterious virtuosity and intricate design – was full of surprises. As was she. Her profound curiosity, patience, spunk, integrity and sense of humor always kept her dancers and friends on their toes, so to speak. And her warmth and playful innocence grounded us. I will forever treasure the time we shared in the dance studio, on stage, and most of all in each other's hearts.

[Caption: Trisha Brown in "Watermotor." PHOTO: Babette Mangolte 1978 COURTESY: trishabrowncompany.org]