NFPF Grant Recipient: Trisha Brown Dance Company

Still from Peter Muller's "Man Walking Down the Side of a Building," a document of a work by Trisha Brown; courtesy Trisha Brown Dance Company
The Trisha Brown Dance Company will preserve two films with a grant it has received in the National Film Preservation Foundation’s 2012 round of funding: Man Walking Down the Side of a Building, made in 1970 by Peter Muller, and Ballet (1968). Both films are early and insightful looks at choreographer and company founder Trisha Brown’s intelligent and irreverent wit, and her radical definitions of what constituted performance.

The company is in the process of compiling Brown’s 40-plus-year archive. That will ultimately be placed online and be used for such company programming as screening films at exhibits, in conjunction with performances and education activities.

The company’s archive creative director, Cori Olinghouse, has already catalogued over 1,500 works in an archive database, and has identified footage that is some combination of most significant, at risk, or rare. “We have accordingly prioritized which films to preserve,” says Heather Wigmore, the company’s development associate. The NFPF has already helped restore other films of the Trisha Brown Archive, including Homemade, Walking on the Wall, and (in progress) Planes.

On artistic and aesthetic levels, both the films that will be restored with the new grant represent Brown’s explorations with gravity and props, hallmarks of her work. She incorporated improvisation and everyday movements, often performing her early work outdoors.

The acclaimed choreographer emerged from the postmodern era in the arts. A graduate of Mills College, in Oakland, California, she showed her boundary-expanding work with Judson Dance Theater in the 1960s. She influentially pushed the limits of “appropriate” movement for choreography. In 1970, she formed Trisha Brown Dance Company while creating dances for alternative spaces including Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (1970). She has collaborated with many other leading arts innovators, including painter and graphic artist Robert Rauschenberg; musician/composers Laurie Anderson, Alvin Curran, and Dave Douglas; and artist Kenjiro Okazaki. In all, Brown has created over 100 dance works since 1961 including several operas. She is also an accomplished visual artist.

Among her numerous honors and honorary doctorates, Brown was the first woman choreographer to receive the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship “Genius Award.” She is a Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, a high French governmental award. In 2011 she was awarded the New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Lifetime Achievement Award and the prestigious Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize.

In Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dialogue, 1961-2001 (MIT Press, 2002), the cultural critic Maurice Berger described Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (1970): “More than just an analytical exercise, the work was also an awesomely beautiful and challenging performance.” Brown first presented the work in April 1970. She “strapped a male dancer into a mountaineering harness and sent him walking down the façade of a seven-story building at 80 Wooster Street in Manhattan,” writes Berger. “The now-legendary dance piece … contained no tricks or illusions. As the man made his way down – arms at his sides, his straight legs moving perpendicular to the building, an assistant on the roof slowly letting out the rope that held him – the radically altered relationship of his body to gravity only served to draw attention to the simple mechanics of walking. His powerful body in motion, as Brown would later observe, illustrated the ‘paradox of one action working against another… gravity working one way on the body…a naturally walking person in another way.’”

The effect of the presentation, Berger wrote, was that “with each fantastic step, the man dared his audience on the ground to question their perceptions of a reality that seemed almost impossible.”

In the earlier dance piece, Ballet, from 1968, Brown had two parallel ropes strung horizontally, eight feet above the floor.

It was among a series of pieces, part dance, part installation art, that critics have described as autobiographical performance exploring self-transformation and gesture. “Full of  physical and emotional risk, these were personally created rituals in which Brown posed the self as a dilemma, making identity vulnerable to disassembly,” Marianne Goldberg wrote in Fifty Contemporary Choreographers (edited by Martha Bremser, Routledge, 1999). “More performance-art pieces than dances, their predecessors were ‘happenings’. Brown conflated private and public spaces by using a barely converted industrial loft as both home and studio, putting domestic gestures into her dances like found objects. She overlaid personal history with live improvisation, exorcizing, for example, the violence of hunting experiences as a teenager with her father. She pursued sudden disorientations in off-balance moves, hurling herself, plummeting, and rebounding. With filmic projections she took metaphoric flight from the constraints of femininity, using props like tutus and tightropes to fulfil fantastical images.”

In Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dialogue, 1961-2001, Hendel Teicher recalled: “Dressed in a pink tutu, Brown reached the ropes by a ladder and then traversed them on all fours, with her hands holding on and her legs in a necessarily awkward version of the ‘second position’ used in ballet training. In addition to the spectacle of this playful acrobatic feat, Brown used slide projections throughout the performance. Some of the slides show her in the same position that she used to cross the ropes and others are details of colorful knitted sweaters that cast a kaleidoscopic light across the stage and onto Brown. Still others show the tutu, with its stiff layers of frills, as an object, which through a series of images she manipulates by progressively opening the circular waist.”

Teicher added: “In Ballet, sexual analogies hover in the air, while humorously dispelling the rigid traditions of ballet. The conventional lexicon of classical dance is subjected to the primitive movements and desires of the animal kingdom.”

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