As a member of the ground-breaking dance collective Judson Dance Theater in the 1960s, Trisha Brown carved out a reputation as a highly innovative choreographer. Over six decades, she created a diverse body of more than 100 works, using a process-oriented approach and rule-based structures.
Born in Aberdeen, Washington, Brown studied ballet, tap, jazz and acrobatics as a child. After receiving a dance degree from Mills College in 1958, she taught at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. In 1960, she attended pioneering dance artist Anna Halprin’s summer workshop near San Francisco. She was inspired by Halprin’s use of structured improvisation. A year later, Brown moved to New York City, where she joined an experimental composition course taught by composer Robert Dunn, a disciple of John Cage. Her classmates included Simone Forti, Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton.
While dancing with Judson Dance Theater and later the 1970s improvisation group Grand Union, Brown created works that used improvisation and specific rules. She was interested in generating and organizing dances through logical systems, which often resulted in humorous and unconventional actions. For example, in an early work, La Chanteuse (1963), she stood in fourth position and fell over while saying, “Oh, no.”
In 1968, she began to use equipment like ropes, pulleys and harnesses in her choreography to challenge viewers’ perspectives and push the boundaries of what could be considered performance space. Her 1971 Walking on the Wall, in which dancers walked perpendicular to the floor on the walls of the Whitney Museum of American Art, is one of her most memorable works.
In 1970, Brown founded her own company. She continued to use unconventional performance spaces, like parks, plazas, lofts and the roofs of buildings. She also developed a series of dances based on mathematical formulas, most notably her 1971 Accumulation, in which she repeated a simple hand gesture and gradually added small movements of other body parts to generate a highly complex phrase.
The 1980s and ’90s saw Brown delve into work on proscenium stages, including opera. She often collaborated with celebrated artists and composers like Robert Rauschenberg and Laurie Anderson. Brown continued to dance in her own work until the late 2000s. In 2013, due to health issues, she stepped down as director of her company. DT
In 1998, Brown choreographed and directed the Monteverdi opera L’Orfeo. Photo by Paul Jacques, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives
Rulegame 5 (1964): In this early work, five dancers walk and crawl along parallel lines of tape on the floor. The dancers have to navigate creative ways to move past one another while staying on the lines.
Walking on the Wall (1971): Brown played with the dancers’ and audience’s orientation to gravity by having her cast walk on the interior walls of the Whitney Museum while hooked up to harnesses.
Set and Reset (1983): For this exhilarating, highly acclaimed piece, Brown collaborated with Robert Rauschenberg to construct translucent costumes and wing panels. Though the movement was set, she sought to harness the spirit of improvisation, with unexpected group partnering and dancers nearly crashing into each other, all to Laurie Anderson’s driving score.
Brown’s choreography stands out for its quick bursts of energy, collapses of weight, use of pedestrian movement and loose, yet controlled motion of the limbs. Her movement often functions independently of the music, and she used a wide range of processes, including drawing, formulating rules based on environmental elements and using mathematical formulas to devise structure. Brown frequently incorporated humor into her choreography as well, through movement and spoken word.
The Legacy Lives On
Following Trisha Brown’s retirement as artistic director of her company, leadership passed to company members Diane Madden and Carolyn Lucas. The Trisha Brown Dance Company continues to hold residencies and perform Brown’s work at concert venues, colleges and alternative spaces worldwide. Many company alumni have gone on to have careers as teachers, choreographers and writers, including Dance Magazine editor at large Wendy Perron and choreographers Stephen Petronio and Vicky Shick.
Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-Modern Dance, by Sally Banes, Wesleyan University Press, 1987
Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dialogue, 1961–2001, edited by Hendel Teicher, The MIT Press, 2002
Dance Heritage Coalition: “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures”: danceheritage.org
Trisha Brown Dance Company: trishabrowncompany.org
Trisha Brown: Early Works 1966–1979, ARTPIX, 2005