“To take proper notes at Trisha Brown,” tweeted New York dance critic Eric Taub after a recent performance, “you need a protractor, French curve and graphing paper.”
Drafting might distract fellow patrons during gallery and stage shows by the choreographer’s NYC-based company Friday 15 through Sunday 17 at the MCA. But you won’t really need to: The intricate curlicues made by her dancers’ toes and fingertips tend to linger in the mind’s eye.
Even though they’re drawn lightly. Rather than being motivated by these anatomical endpoints—distal initiation, in dance terms—many actions originate in the body’s core with an impetus or redirection of momentum generating precise arcs of limb, like a tail or a whip. These proximal initiations make set movements appear as spontaneous and unpredictable as the swaying of underwater blades of grass.
Like Taub, former Trisha Brown Dance Company members Cori Olinghouse and David Thomson are taking notes on Brown’s works, in charge of an archive whose initial five-year plan was recently put in motion. However, unlike equally iconic American dance figures such as Balanchine, Cunningham and Graham, there’s no capital-T technique following Trisha Brown’s last name. The 74-year-old dance maker’s roots are in the Judson Church, where, in the early ’60s, other New York choreographers colored outside the lines. Recent Brown works like Les yeux et l’âme may be inspired by the 18th-century French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, but they still bear traces of the pedestrian plainness that took hold in the seminal postmodern-dance venue.
They also recall its interdisciplinary spirit: Les yeux’s backdrop is based on a drawing by Brown, black lines of varying weights interacting with a casual delicacy similar to that of her choreography. (Sometimes, they’re combined: Brown’s performed solos on giant sheets of paper with charcoal or oil crayons between her toes.)
Judson Church experimentation lives on as well: During a rehearsal for the creation of L’Amour au théâtre (2009), also to Rameau, Brown instructed the dancers, plainly and simply, to “fly across the stage.”
“She has these impossible visions,” says company member Laurel Jenkins Tentindo, laughing, “that we create as a group through trying things out. It’s really playful…a very active, alive, creative process, rather than a dogmatic, ‘Do this. Now do it better.’ kind of scene. It becomes specific later, but starts out very improvisatory.”
Tentindo fell in love with the approach in 1997, as a freshman at Sarah Lawrence College. TBDC alum Iréne Hultman taught choreography there heavily influenced, says Tentindo, by Brown’s methods. “It was like ballet because it was so structured, but also completely free. I could let go, and yet it was so complex.
“I felt this propulsion inside me to make all of these plans.” At the time it seemed impossible, she says, but in 2007, Tentindo joined the company at the age of 28.
Brown formed the troupe in 1970 yet the archive of more than 100 works will reach back earlier, to the Judson heyday. Media from the archive will be available online, including a wealth of film and video, much of it shot by dancer Carolyn Lucas, who is “pretty much always holding a camera,” says company manager Carrie Brown (no relation).
“It’s important to Trisha that her work is accessible,” Brown explains, “but it’s even more important that the information behind it is taught as well.” The footage captures the thinking behind her choices, in discussions, studio work and feedback from the artist, ensuring the preservation of her ideas as well as their containers.
They’re clues to a genius who—as in the case of my request for an interview with her—will always be somewhat elusive. Brown’s choreography “comes from her guts,” Tentindo says. “She’ll listen instinctively with her whole body, and if you’re in a dancing state where you feel like you’re coming from your guts, too, she’ll receive it somehow.”
Trisha Brown Dance Company presents Les yeux and repertory masterworks Friday 15 through Sunday 17.