By R.M. Campbell
It now has become a commonplace to note that the Northwest has been particularly fertile ground for choreographers. Robert Joffrey, Merce Cunningham and Mark Morris have powerful Seattle roots. The city would like to claim the fourth, Trisha Brown, but somehow she managed to skip Seattle on her way from her hometown of Aberdeen (like the painter Robert Motherwell), stopping in the Bay Area for Mills College and a couple of years in Reed College in Portland before arriving in New York where she has lived most of her life.
But she remembers the Northwest and feels a sense of kinship when she is in Seattle. It is a connection she never left.
“There were those clarion experiences as a child in the forest and the rivers,” she said in an interview. “The small town of Aberdeen was formative and one harks back to that emblem of something between one’s identity and place. Two generations of my family still live in the Northwest. The rain forest and the rain and the fog on the coast gave me an extraordinary sense of nature, which in Seattle might come from the mountains. There is a kind of magic in the surrounding forest and the fog that I felt as a child. I have talked with Merce (who grew up in Centralia) about that.”
Indeed. The artist Terry Winters, who has often collaborated with Brown, recalled last fall in the New York Times that Brown likes to talk about growing up in the woods. “As a kid she used to love to run through the forest really fast, which meant she had to avoid all the fallen trees and stones and broken branches; it was very much an uneven field. All of that really forced her to take unpredictable routes and develop asymmetrical patterns, and I think that really is the basis of her work. The shortest distance between two points in the forest is not necessarily a straight line.”
Thanks to the UW World Series at Meany Hall, she now comes on a regular basis, the most recent being this weekend. Now in her mid-70s, Brown has become one of the icons of modern dance, as Merce Cunningham is. Her small but confident and talented company was founded more than 40 years ago. And she, never short of idea nor collaborators, has continued to explore anything that might be called movement, often seemingly random like Cunningham but looser and more relaxed.
Dance critic Deborah Jowitt, in a catalog essay for the exhibition, “Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dialogue” at the Henry Art Gallery a few years ago, noted Brown’s “famously silky style . . . like something glimpsed between trees, influenced by tides . . . You feel movement running through her body — spurting here, flowing there, diverted by new currents, but always delectably free and supple.”
Her program was a short survey of Brown past and present: “Watermotor,” from 1978; “Opal Loop/Cloud Installation #72503,” 1980; “Set and Reset.” 1983,” and “Les Yeux et l’ame, a suite of dances collected from her staging of Rameau ‘s “Pygmalion” nearly a year ago in Amsterdam.
“Set and Reset” is one of Brown’s most important works. She once described her movement as “the line of least resistance.” It is easy to see that in “Set and Reset,” with its relaxed torsos, loose limbs and everyday gestures made hip and easy. The work brought Brown national attention and gave her career genuine momentum. It is quintessential Brown, not only because of its inventive choreography but her collaboration with leading artists of the time: the painter Robert Rauschenberg, at one time chairman of her board of trustees, doing the sets and costumes, and the composer Laurie Anderson, the music. How well the three suit one another, each integral to the piece in their individual way, yet seamlessly joined together. It remains remarkably fresh, a cool exploration of movement.
“Watermotor” and “Opal Loop” are set to silence, for one dancer and four dancers, respectively. They are interesting but perhaps not quite compelling. They seem especially “silky,” slipping from one kind of movement to another with astonishing ease. “Watermotor” was originally danced by Brown. In Seattle Neal Beasley did the part with aplomb. “Opal Loop” has its dancers interact with fog coming and going on stage. It is a very effective device and must trace its sensibility to those misty days on the Washington coast.
‘Les Yeux” sees a different Brown. In her early days, music had little presence in her work. Then, as she developed now historic collaborations with artists, she began the same with contemporary composers. In 1995, she took to Bach, which led to Monteverdi and Schubert and Webern and others. “I imposed classical Western music on myself because I wanted to direct an opera and needed to make myself and my company able to respond to that kind of a score measure for measure.” Monteverdi’s seminal opera , “Orfeo,” was among the first, and she has continued to the present. What marks “Les Yeux” is Brown’s decor — a large drawing upstage — and the way her movement conforms to the rhythm and pace of Monteverdi. The music does not dictate the movement, but it sets certain perimeters for her steps and flows with admirable evenness. What a pity we never see her fully staged operas in Seattle.