THE CHOREOGRAPHER IS PRESENT: TRISHA BROWN AT DIA:BEACONby Patricia Milder
Both performances were supposed to be the same. They were scheduled to take place a little over an hour away from the city in Beacon, and we definitely missed the 1pm showing. No matter. A late start was corrected with a dangerous bit of speeding on the highway and by the time the 3pm audience was shuffled into the gallery space where Group Primary Accumulation with Movers (1973) was already occurring, we—minutes late, last in line—were among them. In the presence of Trisha Brown’s understated early work and DiaBeacon’s wealth of natural light, time changed speed and space got bigger. Rushing itself suddenly seemed a ridiculous oddity.
Four dancers performed Brown’s repetitive series of movements while laying on their backs behind the waist-high glass walls that separate gallery visitors from Michael Heizer’s sculpture, North, East, South, West, the “set” for the first work. Bent knees opened and closed, heads raised up to look between legs, hands lifted to the side of heads as if tucking hair behind ears—and then again, and then again. Four other dancers, dressed in simple white pants and tops, the same as those going through the “Primary Accumulation” motions together, periodically repositioned their constantly moving counterparts.
The dancers were literally lifted up and placed back down again in different locations around Heizer’s permanent work. From behind a glass guardrail, his “negative” sculpture is not entirely visible because it’s made up of 20-foot deep three-dimensionally shaped holes in the floor, lined with weathering steel. The dancers, who are entirely visible, engage with the sculpture beyond the audience’s ability to completely grasp it due to the distance forced by the museum’s safety measures. As experienced via Brown’s dancers—these totally absorbed specimens of primary movement—the Heizer looks a little more alive, definitely more engaging. The four dancers who play the role of movers, too, look relevant to the site; we are comforted by their watchful eyes in a way that would be lost without the minor implication of threat suggested by the glass wall separating audience from sculpture.
The first piece ends when the physical repetitions just cease to continue. The audience steps aside to let the dancers shuffle past and this is when I notice that Brown is present. She’s wearing a flowing white tunic, something Indian-inspired, age-appropriate and elegant. I assumed she was just there to watch. As we passed through Dia’s wide hallways, we were quickly ushered past essential, often stunning Minimal and Post-Minimal pieces from the museum’s collection, the perfect art-object counterparts to Brown’s early work. The next dance, Figure 8 (1974) was performed amid the 16 square plates of Walter De Maria’s Silver Meters (1976) and Gold Meters (1976-77). The stainless steel plates, embedded with a pound each of mostly-hidden solid gold and silver, are laid on the floor. They are lined up in an ocean of empty space; for the performance, eight dancers stood equally spaced out between them.
Again the dancers, especially those farther away from us in the immense, bright-white former factory space, interact more with the museum objects than the floor-seated audience. They are like a sculpture here, arms raised and curved above their heads, the sound of a ticking clock corresponding with precise but asymmetrical movements executed with just those limbs. Following Figure 8, seven of the dancers leave the space and Tamara Riewe performs the 1963 solo La Chanteuse. Her solo was over almost before it began: she said, “Oh no. Oh no,” and then fell to the side, landing on padding that another dancer made sure to secure for her.
In the John Chamberlain gallery we were supposed to see Work in Progress, a newer piece that ran during the 1pm show, but instead there was a surprise appearance by Brown. Finally up close to an audience, who was now seated in front of two of Chamberlain’s crushed cars, three female dancers improvised with Brown. What had started as a somewhat austere presentation became so much more personal at this juncture in the show. Brown’s presence was characterized by the weight of her entire career and the grace with which she continued to move. It wasn’t about stunning physical feats, though at her age the bends and leg lifts are impressive, but more about her relationship with her dances and those who dance them. At one point she kissed a forehead. Everyone smiled. The passage of time was well marked by her presence: the body’s changes and the spirit’s great consistency. Time, echoed by the On Kawara date paintings visible through an open doorway—intentionally, no doubt—passed slowly during this improvisation. Distance between people dissipated. Tears had to be wiped from cheeks.
Downstairs in the basement, Opal Loop/Cloud Installation #72503 (1980) rounded out the afternoon. Four dancers, each differently costumed, performed in front of clouds of fog that were designed by Fujiko Nakaya, a collaborator on this piece. An exercise in contrasts, the work featured dancers rarely moving in synch, a structure complemented by the rhythm of this four-part show. Newly revived, Opal Loop echoes the unexpectedly fresh feel of this overall program of Brown’s older dances in conversation with the art and architecture of Dia: Beacon.
PATRICIA MILDER is an art and performance writer based in Brooklyn. She was a former Managing Art Editor at the Brooklyn Rail.