Trisha Brown with Susan Yung
Trisha Brown Dance Company performs at the Joyce Theater Feb 5 – 10 in a program featuring I love my robots (2007), If you couldn’t see me (1994), and Foray Forêt (1980). Susan Yung recently spoke with Trisha Brown in her Soho loft.
Rail: Your titles are like little poems. How do you come up with them, like Foray Forêt and Floor of the Forest, and can you discuss the latter’s recent showing in Germany?
Brown: Floor of the Forest is depictive. I grew up in the forest. I made a list of about six titles for that piece. Installations didn’t exist in those days, so this work was not met with outside interest, except for a small cabal of people who lived in Soho then, and one’s friends. This piece was in Documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany this past season, and I put some figures in these three doorways -- dancers doing an accumulation -- to create some friction, so one had to assert themselves to see the art, and get in and out. It became very popular, cameras everywhere, people just shooting and shooting! It was interesting because in 1971, there were probably 39 people in the audience, and no critics – even though I had called a few – but I was very young. And now it’s just swamped, 10,000 people a day! For a hundred days! It was incredible.
Rail: Foray Forêt -- can you talk about the idea of using a marching band that moves throughout the theater and lobby, and where the title came from?
Brown: I lived in a small town in Washington State with marching bands that marked the biggest moments of the year – Thanksgiving, football games. Whenever I hear a marching band, I hone back home, because I want to know where it is, why is one marching on this day -- I want to get close to it. So I was standing on a little balcony in Barcelona, and I hear Sousa on the street! It was amazing how I zoomed back to my early memories of marching bands. But these ideas can be gimmicky, so I hang onto them, and I vet them all year long. I called Bob Rauschenberg – he’s still my artistic director – and described the idea of using a marching band, and he said, Trisha, that is the best bad idea you’ve ever had!
I loved the forest, it was beautiful. It informed a lot of things. Even my rhythmic structures had to do with running away from the big boys having a clambake or whatever. By running away from them you had to go from solid place to solid place in a rainforest, and so you go in, you go down, as you’re running. Down a hill, past devil’s claws— which are big stickers – finding rocks, or the degree of rotting in a fallen tree -- it was an amazing thing, fast as you could go.
Alone in the forest, I loved the way the light came through these giant ancient trees, sweetly piercing things. Then your eye comes more toward where you’re sitting, and you see an ecoculture spinning off in its habitat. I would watch that and trace it … it was my first art lesson.
Rail: You work in what you call cycles. What kind of cycle does Foray Forêt fall under?
Brown: It was the first work in the Back to Zero cycle, which followed the Valiant series, which followed the Unstable Molecular Structure, which is Set and Reset -- the most famous piece in the repertory. It was so enormously popular here and in Europe that it scared me. I asked myself, “What are you going to do, Trisha… keep on churning out these puppies, or go forward in the pursuit of more information?” I took the second choice. I’m suspicious that I did that, but I did. The movement then was slippery, sensuous, sequential, sexy, all these ‘s’ words that just kept coming up in the newspaper. It was a way of pinning me down again, and I didn’t want that.
I moved to the Valiant series, which was hard [pow, krsshh], geometric, and then the barn doors flew open, and I went in that direction. I didn’t dump my natural style of movement, but I moved with great thrall into more geometric movement and those two things came forward with me. I stopped making cycles because I imposed the direction of opera into the system, because time was running out. So I studied classical music, opera, and it was just so thrilling to get narrative after you’ve been abstract for a thousand years.
Rail: What was the idea or cycle behind I love my robots?
Brown: There’s a cardboard tube that sits on a chassis (an automotive frame), operated by computer or by hand… I started playing around with them, and they react a lot to what I do, very intelligently, it seemed, but it was the people operating it. So there was improvisation and fixed forms.
Rail: What’s the concept behind If you couldn’t see me?
Brown: It was Bob Rauschenberg’s idea. Someone had given him a Yamaha keyboard for Christmas, and he was trying to write music and said “I’ve just written some music for you. I want you to perform with your back to the audience, and I think it should be called,” something a little too sentimental, like, If you never saw me again. I was afraid the critics were going to hand me my head at the end of the day. You don’t know how people are going to interpret that -- “she turned her back on me.” The whole expression apparatus is on the front of your body. It was kind of hard. It got better.
Rail: You are also a visual artist. Do you make drawings on a regular basis, and have you ever considered pursuing visual art as your primary art?
Brown: I haven’t drawn in awhile. I have to allot my time to the three disciplines I operate in: directing opera, choreography, and drawing. I love drawing very much. If I may say, it’s so much easier for me to do than making choreography. Perhaps it’s overwhelming trying to keep up with all three zones. I plan to do one more opera and then I’m not going to do any more operas. I suspect I will see myself drawing all the way to the end.
When I draw, I love operating in a band of mystery. I don’t know what instincts are guiding me. I work a lot on the floor. I put drawing materials in my hands and under my feet; all four of those things are independent drawing apparatus. When I step off of the paper, I get some sort of thrum in my breastbone, and it’s thrilling -- tracking the mystery. When I first started drawing, I was making an alphabet. I have a lot of alphabet stories. It gives me little figures, and then I take them and work with them for like 15 days. Memorize them, closing my eyes. At the Walker Art Center, they’re celebrating the Year of Trisha Brown (I say with great embarrassment) and they have all my stuff -- artwork, all the early pieces.
Rail: There seems to be a persistent interest in the influence of the 1960’s Judson movement, of which you were a key inventor. European choreographers mimic work from that period of time, and this year there was a piece in the Performa festival that used hula hoops on a rooftop, that seemed to reincarnate your Rooftops piece. How do you feel about that?
Brown: When people rip me off, it’s on the front page of the arts section. When I do it, it’s somewhere else in the back. Maybe this is a good thing.
Rail: Why do you think interest in your work is particularly strong in France?
Brown: All my early works are being asked for. All my past is touring, and all the new work is touring. It’s really hard to keep up with it. Why? It’s like a refresher course or something. In France, they’ve seen everything, they’re very serious about it. I think they just wanted to get in the sandbox with us, and they did.
Susan Yung is a New York-based writer specializing in dance and art.