Leah Morrison

The dancer talks about her work with Trisha Brown.

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Leah Morrison’s favorite compliment came after a performance at Dia:Beacon when she performed Trisha Brown’s You Can See Us with Dai Jian. A friend told her that they moved like animals. “I love that,” Morrison says. “I strive to have the purity of function and raw energy that animals—and children—have. We all have it, it’s just about uncovering the layers and letting it loose.” As a member of the Trisha Brown Dance Company, Leah Morrison has been letting it loose since 2005 and is universally venerated—her lanky elegance recalls Brown, yet she is a singular presence. Beginning Wednesday 7, she appears with the group at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in a program featuring If you couldn’t see me (performed alternately by Morrison and Jian) and Opal Loop/Cloud Installation #72503, a revival from 1980. She spoke about her dancing after a day of rehearsals.

When did you start dancing?
I started dancing when I was eight and in huge mass dance classes—like 50 kids—in the elementary school gym. That’s what I did from eight until 15. It was an afternoon thing, and it was ballet and tap. There was one woman, Miss Marilyn, teaching all of these kids and we would have recitals at the end of the year with 200 kids. [Laughs] Within that time, when I was 12 or 13 I started going to the Center of Contemporary Arts [COCA].

Did you love dancing?
I did. I was always drawn to it from the time I was a small child. I think I always wanted to dance when there was music on, so when I found out that there were these classes, it was just a natural thing for me to want to go.

How did you make your way to COCA?
My parents brought me to see a performance of COCAdance, which was the youth dance company that Lee Nolting was the director of, and I could remember sitting in the audience just being like, Yes—this is what I want! Get me in there! Soon after I saw that performance, I went to see if I could start classes and Lee said, “Yeah, come on,” and in my nave mind I thought, I’m in the company. It was three more years before I got into the COCAdance company. I was there for four years and had a lot of experience performing all around [St. Louis], and that was really great.

Did you study jazz and ballet there?
It was mostly jazz. Lee was a jazz teacher, so that was the biggest influence going on there, and then the company developed and started bringing in different guest choreographers. Rebecca Stenn, Rennie Harris and River North Chicago Dance Company came, so we started expanding and doing some more modern, some hip-hop.

Did the guest choreographers encourage you? Was it meaningful?
Yes, it was.

Who did you—
Hook into? All of them. [Laughs] At that point, I was excited by everything. Anything that came at me, I wanted to be involved with. The first—I think chronologically—was with River North, and that was good for me because they cast me in one of the more major roles, and I was relatively young within the company. I was very shy also, so it was a big deal to be put forward in that piece. I was really into Rennie Harris. I like to do hip-hop dancing, so that was fun. He was really playful; there was a whole Soul Train part where one person goes forward and shows their stuff. COCA was very familylike—it wasn’t really competitive in any way, and I gained a lot of confidence in that time. When I first started taking classes with Lee, anytime she would talk to me I would basically tear up. [Laughs] Through the years, I’ve found my place and I’ve found confidence in what I was doing.

Is that something you figured out through time, with repetition?
Yes, definitely time, and I think my personal confidence—how I felt socially within a group—grew with my dancing. As I grew more confident as a dancer, I was able to make more friends and feel more comfortable. It’s kind of a pattern with me! [Laughs]

How long were you there?
From the time I was 12 to 18.

Did you choreograph?
I did. It was a really good opportunity for me because I guess I could sense that there were different ways of moving that I had inside my body that I hadn’t really been able to find in a dance class. I think that’s where I started to explore that. Just a little bit. [Smiles] Just the tip of the iceberg.

You eventually ended up attending SUNY Purchase, but where else did you apply? What were you thinking at that point?
I don’t know what I was thinking, because all of the schools were so different. I applied to places in St. Louis; I think I was deciding whether I should stay around my family or whether I should just go to New York. I applied to some area schools and to Juilliard. Got cut. [Laughs] So I went to SUNY Purchase from ’99 to ’03. It was really good. The first thing that comes to my mind is not even about dance. I just made a lot of good friends there. In St. Louis when I was growing up, I was in a very small neighborhood with a small school district—I was with the same people basically from kindergarten to high school. I was ready to meet different kinds of people.

It’s a conservatory. Was it different from COCA?
Yeah. Well, there was no jazz. [Laughs] That was an adjustment. I was put into a ballet tutorial because my ballet technique was not strong enough. What I remember the most was my classes Neil Greenberg. He was definitely my biggest influence, because he introduced me to somatic work and Body-Mind Centering and Klein—just that way of approaching movement through anatomical understanding of the body and embodying the organs and systems. I also had him for Klein technique, improvisation and comp. He was very playful with us and his approach to teaching was that we were all learning together. It was a nice space for exploration.

Has it been difficult to continue with ballet?
Yeah. I have taken maybe one ballet class since I’ve graduated. I’m not one of those people who wanted to be a ballet dancer at any point.

Did you learn about contemporary choreographers through Greenberg or through dance-history classes?
We had dance history. I don’t remember ever seeing a mention of Trisha Brown, but I could be wrong. I may have just forgotten. We had dance history. I seem to recall maybe in comp class—I know we talked about scores, so I feel like there was some discussion around the Judson group. I felt very creative at the time; I felt very interested in making work. I can remember being excited in comp class to see what other people had come up with and to show what I was thinking about—I became interested in site-specific work. I made a piece that went all over the campus. I think I was incorporating a lot of different ideas and one of them was chance and one of the things that I did was I took a walk around campus and was listening in to what I could hear people talking about and recorded little bits of conversations and that became the text of the piece and so I had people shouting the text and others discreetly having a conversation that included the text. [Laughs] I kind of want to remake this piece. I had friends who were nondancers doing movement. I guess I was just interested in weaving composition and movement into everyday life and letting it be one. I feel like there was a lot of richness going on. Everyone was making really interesting work. It was a really good time and I was also doing “improvisation attack” with friends—attacking the caf or something.

What was your plan after graduation? Were you planning on moving here?
Yeah. I did. I moved. I did relatively little planning, which, thinking back on it, is odd. I moved in with two or three other dancers and just started looking for work. I worked at Starbucks and another coffeeshop. I started babysitting. That’s basically what I did until I got into the company. I was dancing with Candice Schnurr and Maria Parshina and we were trying to start a collective [Moving People], and we did one performance together. I did a project with RoseAnne Spradlin.

Were you studying at Trisha Brown?
[Shakes head no with wide eyes]

How much did you know about Trisha Brown before auditioning?
Not much. I had seen one performance; I had taken classes by [former company members] Vicky Shick and Gwen Welliver. It was so shocking when I got into the company. I was shocked.

How did you hear of the audition?
I saw a posting at DTW, and I just showed up. Saw the posting, got out of work at the coffeeshop—I had to switch my shifts around. Thank God I did! [Laughs] Also, the audition notice had the dates for a workshop—they would choose several people to do a workshop and it said, “Don’t do the audition if you can’t do the workshop.” I had planned a trip to Singapore during the workshop and I went anyway; I remember it being like 200 people. I might be wrong. It could have been 100. And oddly, I can remember being pretty calm. I had started studying Alexander and I remember applying the ideas; I got asked to come to the workshop and I had to show up a week late because I was on this trip so I had a lot of catching up to do. I just did my best and they narrowed it down from 15 to eight and from eight to three and I was pretty sure that my friend Candice was going to be the one to get it. She was in the group of eight and then she wasn’t in the group of three. That just blew my mind. What’s going on? I don’t think it became a real possibility in my mind until I was in the group of three. And then there was one day that they asked me to come in on my own just to observe rehearsal, and at the end of it Gwen Welliver came up to me and asked me if I would like to join the company. [Laughs] Hmmmm. Sure.

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Do you see the resemblance between Brown and yourself?
I do. From the start of joining the company, I was put into Trisha’s roles immediately; the woman who was leaving, Hope Mohr, had been doing Trisha’s role in Set and Reset, so that was one of the first things that I learned. It always made sense to me, it always felt good to me—her style, but more than that. Her idiosyncrasies and weird little details and wobbles. When I started to perform Set and Reset, more and more people were coming up to me and saying, “You really look like her”—including Trisha herself. [Laughs]

Who teaches you roles?
When I first joined the company, I learned a lot from Hope. Also with Set and Reset specifically, there’s a duet section, which was for Trisha and Eva Karczag. I think I learned the overall structure from Hope, but then we did a lot of work regaining the original spirit of it, getting that back in there from the video and all the documentation. So from the start I was studying Trisha herself—her body, her craziness. That’s a particularly crazy section for her. You have to look at it again and again to realize what’s actually going on because it looks so thrown and free.

So Set and Reset was the first?
It was one of the first, with Groove and Countermove and Astral Convertible. That’s what I came into. Groove I could fit right into because I was very jazzy. [Laughs]

Does your jazz technique inform what you do now?
I think it probably does. Rhythmically. I do find myself coming at learning from a rhythmic base. If I see something, I first try to pick up the rhythm of it and then work out the details from there. That could be a jazz influence. The experience I had at COCA performing so much—it was an easy and fun thing, to perform. We never tried to get perfect or anything like that. It wasn’t a high-pressure situation. I mean we were imitating James Brown and stuff.

Do you have any inhibitions about performing Brown’s roles?
I do work very hard to make something as specific and as similar to the original as I can, but I also am a very strong believer in once I’m performing, it’s mine. [Laughs] If you can see the original energy and impulse of it, then just incorporate that, and whatever comes out might look slightly different, but it has the original spirit, so it’s both yours and hers. I guess because I have a full understanding of it, if it changes or morphs in some way, it’s still like the original. At least I hope it is. [Laughs] I give myself that freedom.

What was the process to learn If you couldn’t see me, in which you perform with your back to the audience?
I started learning it by myself with a video just as a way of getting the process moving along. It was a really good tool for learning about how I learn. I worked with [former company member and choreographic assistant] Carolyn Lucas, who had been in the room with and learning alongside Trisha as each movement was created. She and Trisha both were able to directly communicate the physical concepts and share their memories from the process. In a way, I feel like I’ve learned the most through that piece. I guess I learned to analyze and to look for the function and the reason and the original impulse of movement; to see how it becomes the final product or the final flourish. And part of that is the way that the documentation was made. See me was great because you see the whole process of Trisha improvising in the studio. Something comes out and she’s like, I like that—I’ll do that again. And I’m going to add this. And you really see what it is and why and how.

How do you feel about the transition from learning, which sounds like an amazing experience, to performing it?
Well, it’s oddly fitting for me, because I am basically a shy person.

And you don’t want to be seen!
[Laughs] Yeah. It was definitely good at the beginning to have that safety net. I could make all kinds of faces, which I do. Lots of heavy breathing. But I’ve been performing it for a couple of years and there’s something powerful about it. It’s virtuosic, that’s for sure. It’s difficult. Trisha made it and just wanted to show off all her stuff. So that’s there—the rush of actually accomplishing these hard-ass moves. [Laughs] And then something that comes up in a lot of her work that I really connect to: dynamic changes, instantaneous shifts. So I guess it’s a bit of sorcery, because you’re the only one shaping the space and doing something really powerful and then doing a subtle little demure kind of gesture. It’s almost like telling a story, but it’s definitely not linear.

Why are you so shy?
[Laughs] I have just never connected with words. I have never felt easy with words. I just always had trouble communicating, expressing my feelings, and I think that’s why I turned to dancing! It was a relief. I guess. It’s just something that I felt comfortable and good doing. I might get embarrassed when I was talking, but if I was moving I would want to be seen. I would want the attention.

What kind of notes do you get from Brown?
In See me, there weren’t so many corrections. It had been a little while since she’d done it, but it was still so much in her body that she would just do a shadow of it and it would become really clear: the reasoning, the logic behind it, and she would talk about it a little bit, like “this happens because of this.” Aha! [Laughs]

How do you find spontaneity in performance?
Depending on what is sparking my interest that day, anything from the volume within the skull to the digestive tract as a central axis, I incorporate what I’m learning and exploring into my body as I dance. I allow myself to experience something new even as I perform, so in a way I let go of control and what results is a spontaneity, a being in the present moment. I’m in the present, because I’m thinking about something new all the time.

How hands-on is Trisha?
She focuses entirely on the new projects and puts her trust in Diane Madden and Carolyn Lucas to handle the repertory. At times she is physically involved, in the mix dancing with us. When she gets really excited about an idea, the best way she can communicate it is by demonstrating it or showing us her physical impulse to spur us on in some way. And then other times she’s happy to see us create a phrase and she’ll steer us in certain directions as we make movement. She can be very specific. She’ll really home in on one detail. She’s funny. So she can be very meticulous, in a way, about little details, but then when she has an idea, it tends to be very imagery based, dreamlike in a way. She has a lot of fantastical ideas. She’s definitely always pushing to do something that she’s never done before, which I have a lot of respect for.

Who else do you work with that you find a connection with?
Carolyn. She’s another person like Trisha where she’ll do something small and you’ll be like, Oh, of course. I can just see the logic in her body and apply it directly to myself. There’s an ease and a sense to what she does, and I wish so much that I could have seen her dance when she was in the company.

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