Q&A: Diane Madden talks about the Trisha Brown Dance Company's NYLA performances

Diane Madden talks about the Trisha Brown Dance Company's historic program at New York Live Arts

Trisha Brown Dance Company rehearses Son of Gone Fishin'

Trisha Brown Dance Company rehearses Son of Gone Fishin' Photograph: Stephanie Berger

Last winter, the dance community raced to BAM to see Trisha Brown's last original works. A year later, the fate of the Trisha Brown Dance Company is still unclear, but in the meantime, current members Neal Beasley, Cecily Campbell, Olsi Gjeci, Tara Lorenzen, Megan Madorin, Tamara Riewe, Jamie Scott, Stuart Shugg and Nicholas Straffacia, as well as alums Elena Demyanenko and Sam Wentz, will perform repertory at New York Live Arts. Associate artistic director Diane Madden talks about the program.

When Diane Madden sat down with Judith Shea, the costume designer of Trisha Brown’s diabolically complex 1981 Son of Gone Fishin’, what she learned blew her mind. Shea told her that she had a different idea for the costumes before Donald Judd entered the picture and dictated their color scheme—blue and green—in relationship to his set. “I’m like, Wait a minute: There was a design before Judd came in the picture?” Madden recalls. “We’re not using the Judd set. Why use these costumes?” For the Trisha Brown Dance Company’s revival of Son, Madden—its associate artistic director and a revered New York dancer—chose to go with Shea’s original design. It’s a gift, Madden notes, “to make something new that’s very connected to the past, but also creative: moving forward.” They’re golden, just like the dance.

Why did you decide to bring back Son of Gone Fishin’?
Son of Gone Fishin’ is a dance lover’s dance. It’s for the die-hard Trisha Brown fans that were around in the old days. The beauty of that dance is that it doesn’t look like what it is, which is this crazy, detailed structure. You don’t know that when you’re looking at it. It looks completely organic: the constant motion of six bodies with a democratic use of space. I think it’s really hard to get a handle on a form, yet it’s one of Trisha’s most formal dances. You can also respond to it just on a sensual, visceral level. The music [Robert Ashley’s Atalanta] and the costumes are both contributing to that, but there’s this amazing mind behind it, as well as the minds and work of the dancers to achieve it. When we think about where are we going and how many dances will we continue to perform—and I’m not going to get into all that with you—I want to make sure that we don’t forget certain things about Trisha.

Certain things?

This was her first dance that she put with music, and it’s more than 30 years old. She had 25 years of choreographing before that. What are the certain things? That she’s brilliant. [Laughs

You were in the original cast. Can you talk about the structure?

I love talking about the structure. The easiest way is to ask, how did Trisha build it? We started with her coming in and teaching us a phrase, and then she asked us to flip it to the other side of the body, which is no big deal for a dancer to do. It happens all the time. Then she asked us to reverse both directions, so we had a right side and we had a left side, and we had to reverse the right side and we had to reverse the left side. So basically that generated four phrases out of one, so at any moment you have four different options in terms of a direction of moving through the one movement phrase. It just took a really long time to do all of that. She then set up a structure where she placed three dancers upstage and three dancers downstage with the three dancers upstage beginning around the beginning of the forward and the other three dancers downstage beginning around the end of the forward. The phrase travels from upstage to downstage on a diagonal. She said, “Start to improvise your way through all four directions of movement to eventually make your way to the other end of the phrase.” That was the launching of a five-minute set improvisation ensemble. We worked really hard. I remember her coming in one Monday and saying, “We went off on a tangent last week—we’re throwing out the whole week.” It was like, Okay! We finished that and rehearsed and understood it, and it was beautiful and then she said, “Now I want you to reverse the form.” So the entire six-person choreography was reversed, so where everyone tumbles into a convergence and spills out, we had to do the reverse of that. When she first said that, we thought she was kidding. That took another long stretch of time.

How long did it take?
The dance premiered in ’81, so it was a year. I joined in ’80. It was one of the first things I did with the company. In 1980, Vicky [Shick], Randy [Warshaw] and I joined. Lisa Kraus, Stephen Petronio and Eva Karczag were there so half the company was new. Randy and I are fresh out of college, and I have a pretty analytical mind so right from the get-go I would start to really break the movement down. People got really frustrated. Eva was just much more of an instinctual mover; they were like, Enough already! Now when I think about it, she was completely right to get frustrated with me. So there was a request, when Trisha taught the next phrase, to not talk about it and just do it through demonstration and observation. That became the insert phrase. Eventually, we did break it down, but there was a long stretch of time where we resisted talking about it so when I reconstructed it, I tried the same thing with the dancers. I always try to re-create the original process of making the dance. It was interesting because this group of dancers initially had a really hard time with it. I don’t know why exactly—I think they’re used to me spoon-feeding. We did analyze it, because we don’t have gobs and gobs of time, and I do need for there to be unison. So there’s the insert section, and there’s a center section that has other phrases that Trisha taught. I think there’s a total of four. I don’t remember where one phrase ends and the other begins anymore, but she had us play with what she calls feathering, which is her version of using canon in a nonmetered way. It’s very playful, but also very specific. There’s a nice little duet that Vicky and Lisa made at the beginning of it. Insert and center are the sections where you say, Oh, okay, I know what’s going on. [Laughs] The rest of it, what I call the main fabric of the piece—the forward and the reverse—is…

It’s mind-blowing.

Thank you! I’ve been calling it very trippy. I don’t know if that’s the impression I want to give.

But it is, because you go in and out of grasping it as a viewer.

Yes. And you have to look at it with relaxed eyes. She used a “W” drawing as a model for the structure of the dance, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get to the bottom of this, but as Donald Judd did a set design for Son of Gone Fishin’ and then he did Newark drops. We’ve started this wonderful new partnerhip with the Judd Foundation, and at our first meeting they showed us photocopies of some drawings related to his work with Trisha and I saw a W. I was like, Oh my God, he has the Son of Gone Fishin’ model there, but then I looked at the date and it was ’87, and [the W] was his representation of the timing for the Newark drops, so somewhere a W got established between Judd and Trisha. I don’t know if it was hers and he took it for Newark or if she got it from him, because that’s how he does things? [She draws a W in the air to illustrate the structure of the movement.] It begins with Trisha’s entrance, which gets the piece going, then it’s a reverse, insert, forward, center and then reverse, insert, forward, center, with Trisha again at the end. So it’s balanced. As a performer, it’s a really interesting experience to repeat a whole form like that: to have the dance be repeated in its entirety and to compare how the first half felt in relation to the second half? The dancers were talking about that the other day, and I said that there was a time—because we were acknowledging that, feeling that, knowing that—that we made a choice to [imagine starting] the dance with the curtain closed, the music going, the audience in place, performing it, but the curtain is closed; and then at the halfway point, the curtain opens on the dancing in progress. Because in general, the second half is the juicier half: Just give yourself over to it.

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