Trisha Browns dance to “Uncle Johns Band,” fifty years on.
Trisha Brown: In Plain Site
September 24–25, 2022
Think this through with me: One dancer presents one gesture. She continues to add, one by one, new gestures to the first, taking it from the top each time. The moves build upon one another referentially, like progress recalling its roots.
Trisha Brown’s Accumulation is set to the Grateful Dead’s “Uncle John’s Band,” a song that itself is expressly referential to its bluegrass and Americana influences. This piece, along with two (Spanish Dance, 1973 and Line Up, 1976) set to Bob Dylan’s version of the Gordon Lightfoot tune “Early Mornin’ Rain,” stands stark against the rest of Brown’s early work of the 1960s and ’70s: a silent, site-specific era. By the 1980s, Brown introduced music more frequently when she transitioned to a new phase of proscenium pieces. The selection leaned mostly classical or experimental, Bach or Laurie Anderson. Somehow this one-off four-and-half-minute gem to the Dead feels like Brown at her most Brown: at once mathematical and wildly free. The dance unfolds in a manner measured and steady, but also with an allure that asks you to come get lost in its groove. First performed at an NYU gymnasium in 1971, the year after “Uncle John’s Band” was released, Accumulation most recently took life at the Kaatsbaan festival in upstate New York.
The first stop on a two-part journey through the grounds of the Kaatsbaan Cultural Park, the Trisha Brown Dance Company’s “In Plain Site” program began in silence at the bottom of a grassy hollow, audience members dotting its slope on a crisp and sun-drenched September afternoon. The chatter waned as a weight-sharing exercise between pairs of dancers became increasingly interesting. No longer set up or warm up, this standing see-saw of dancers held together by two wooden “seats” and rope gently coaxed everyone’s attention from the mountain sunset splendor. After a handful of pieces with varied combinations of dancers, almost all in silence, Accumulation concluded the program. One dancer stood as if about to address the audience. She cast a long shadow as the opening notes of “Uncle John’s Band” floated from the speakers.
Robert Hunter’s lyrics brim with mysterious yet familiar imagery, like curios at an antique shop. “It’s a buck dancer’s choice my friend; better take my advice / You know all the rules by now and the fire from the ice.” Just like the tradition of the Appalachian clogging buck dancer, the Trisha Brown soloist follows the prescribed formula, the rules of the dance, filtering the movement through her personal choices. Like Hunter’s allusion to the Robert Frost poem1 giving equal weight to the powers of fire and ice, the choreography balances cool minimalism with heated hip swivels, stringing the gestures along in gooey succession.
This duality—structured yet flowing—imbues much of Brown’s choreography. It is particularly concentrated in this capsule of a dance. The first gestures are ones of offering: thumb out, an outstretched hand to the audience. The wrist twists back and forth, and then like pressing the button on a Push Puppet, the dancer collapses at joints and restacks. Each time she introduces a new gesture, she assimilates it into her body as the move takes its place within the ever-growing sequence.
No single ingredient in the alchemy of Accumulation is more necessary than any others. While the pastoral backdrop heightened the organic qualities of the work, even in the sterile environment of a white-cube museum gallery, the dance thrills. And although the original (my favorite) version includes “Uncle John’s Band,” the piece can stand strong in silence or in a spoken monologue. As for the body language: Brown lives on in her choreography, but each new dancer interprets the movements in their own idiosyncratic way.
- Robert Frost, “Fire and Ice,” 1920, Harper’s Magazine.