This Saturday, July 9, Portland dance artist Linda K. Johnson will perform an adaptation of New York choreographer Yvonne Rainer’s seminal work Trio A at the Beaverton Farmers Market. She’s calling it Trio A Pressured (after Trio A) because it’s compressed to fit the tiny four-by-four-foot stage used by Ten Tiny Dances. Trio A was choreographed in 1966, and Johnson is a repetiteur of the work. Her job is to make sure that all of the elements of the dance that made it radically different 50 years ago remain intact when someone new learns the dance, maintaining its integrity for the next generation.
Johnson, a native of Portland, has worked up and down the West Coast for the past 25 years as a choreographer, performer, educator, arts administrator, curator, and public artist. She discovered Trio A on a 1997 trip to New York City to see a Robert Rauschenberg retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. In an article she wrote for Dancers Group in San Francisco, Johnson describes her initial, accidental encounter with the work that would eventually change her whole approach to dance.
“Drenched from an autumn downpour, I entered the cavernous room that held the exhibition and looked for a place to sit down and dry out. The only seats in the entire space were two small black cloth cubes set in front of a video monitor in the far corner of the room.”
“There on the screen were three bodies moving around. I could “read” that they were dancing but in a way that was entirely foreign to me. I felt confused and disoriented by what I was watching. My previous dance training and education did not provide me with the tools necessary to deconstruct what I was witnessing. Here I saw movement uninfluenced by a recognizable vocabulary; a performance approach that was present yet detached; a presentation of the body that was uncontrived and matter of fact; and a choreographic form that biased no movement over any other. I was transfixed… spellbound. This was clearly a dance and this was most certainly dancing, but I could not find any kinesthetic empathy with it in my own body.”
Having been deeply affected by the work and wanting to know more about it, Johnson reconnected with it two years later through a month-long Trio A workshop offered in New York City by Clarinda MacLow, the daughter of Judson-period poet Jackson MacLow. Rainer was one of the founders of the Judson Dance Theater, which became the birthplace for progressive dance ideas in the United States and the home of the progressive choreographers and dancers who dreamed them up—Steve Paxton, Deborah Hay, Lucinda Childs, Trisha Brown, Meredith Monk and David Gordon, among others.
In 2002, Johnson and fellow dance artist Shelley Senter committed to an intimate instructional process with Pat Catterson, Trio A’s longstanding repetiteur and teacher of many of Rainer’s other works. This would eventually culminate in an invitation from Rainer for Senter and Johnson to become additional performers and custodians of the work. They are among five worldwide.
Dance historians regard Trio A as a major turning point in the field of dance. It is seen as radical because it argues that engaging the human body in the straightforward task of simply moving, is dancing.
Among the qualities that made it so radical were that it challenged audience expectations, maintained an even amount of energy throughout the dance, and did not assign a particular hierarchy to any of the movement. The performer moved continuously, the performer’s gaze was shifted away from the audience; not ordered in any particular way. There was no storyline, and the performer maintained a neutral emotionality.
ArtsWatcher Barry Johnson wrote of The Oregonian in 2002 about watching Rainer setting Trio A on Linda K. Johnson: “Still, there is something utopian about Trio A, which creates a world where the body operates without expectation, without influences, without a universe of dance history weighing on it. The audience comes to appreciate what the body can do, not to be amused or wowed or impressed. Choreographers since Trio A have occupied that utopian space and created some of the greatest dances ever made – Trisha Brown’s Set and Reset comes immediately to mind.”
In 2014 Johnson was asked to teach Trio A to Axis Dance Company in San Francisco. Axis is a mixed-ability dance company, and the cast for this particular Trio A included two able-bodied female dancers and two male dancers in wheelchairs.
This project proposed new parameters for Trio A, once again upending what is possible in dance performance. The dance was called Trio A Pressured #X and was performed by Marc Brew, Sonsherée Giles, Juliana Monin and Joel Brown.
Johnson, in a conversation from 2014, talked about the rehearsal process with Axis Dance Company and finding new parameters for Trio A while staying true to the energy outputs and qualities of the original.
“Yvonne gave me huge agency to make those decisions and look at what the options were; for me it was an opportunity to understand the choreography on a deeper level,” she said. “I had to find a form that worked for this group of people and it couldn’t be more than 15 min. I was interested in the juxtaposition of the able bodies and the non-able-bodied dancers, so that people could have it revealed to them, what the translation was.”
The adaptation that Johnson and Axis Dance developed began with a solo and at times became a duet, trio, and quartet, before ending again with a solo by a different dancer. All the while each dancer performed Trio A from beginning to end in her or his own space, unrelated to the each other. The order of performers changed every night, giving each dancer a chance to experience performing alone and with the group.
I was fortunate at the time to be able to travel to San Francisco and spend a day watching rehearsals and to see the studio performance of the work in progress. At the time I was grappling with turning 40 and what that meant to me as a dance performer. Seeing the rehearsal process for Trio A and watching Axis create an adaptation of the work obliterated any doubts I had about being too old to dance. Instead the experience gave me new permissions to approach my dancing in whatever way I wanted, even if that meant leaving behind the way I had done it before, essentially letting go of an old identity. My own work as a dance artists has been hugely influenced by working with Trio A second-hand, through my interactions with Johnson.
In March of this year, Johnson was invited to the School of the The Art Institute of Chicago to teach Trio A to a group of MA/MFA Candidates at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, as part of a project called A Program for Plants in Mercury, a collaborative research project by Joshi Radin, Brian M. John and Linda Tegg, mentored by Dr. Giovanni Aloi.
A Program for Plants in Mercury is a video art program that reimagined the Video Data Bank as a life source for plants. The Video Data Bank is a collection of contemporary art on video that includes work from more than 550 artists and is housed at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
In the project’s first phase, Radin, John and Tegg measured the Photosynthetically Active Radiation (light) emitted by the Video Data Bank’s 50 most requested videos. They screened the videos to a spectrometer and took measurements at regular intervals of the light levels emitted. They then pared the selection down to the top five films with the largest outputs. The number one video with the largest light output was Trio A. With the plants in mind, they then created a film festival, playing the films on a loop overnight directly onto the plants, nourishing them with light.
Top 5 films that are nourishing for a plant audience
5. Papillon d’amour / Nicholas Provost
4. RE:THE_OPERATION / Paul Chan
3. Theme Song / Vito Acconci
2. Hostage: The Bachar Tapes (English Version) / Walid Raad and Souheil Bachar
1. Trio A / Yvonne Rainer
This experience prompted the group to consider how Trio A might expand our collective capacity to empathize with plants. Because of this they became interested in learning Trio A and invited Johnson to teach a small section of it as part of a three-day workshop.
I asked the researchers/artists via email about their experiences learning Trio A.
“What I took away from our Trio A workshop was first and foremost an awareness of the materiality of my body. I ended up thinking a lot about the equivalence, on some level, of all bodies, whether they be plants, animals, humans or otherwise. I have found this quite influential.”
“Learning a fragment of Trio A was quite a relief for me. To take on the sequence and trust that one movement would follow the next without too much anticipation. Learning as a group felt important; I never felt like a soloist rather a pragmatic moving part of something larger. We had become quite familiar with the documentation of Trio A, but had never attempted to learn from the film. The relaying or the sequence through the authorized channels was important to us. To move out of mediated spectatorship into embodiment was a radical shift.”
“Over the course of learning the piece and considering empathy with plants, my idea of ‘audience’ kept shifting an internal apprehension, or anticipation, of what we were doing. Focusing on the body and the movements, the ground, became increasingly important as we changed locations and audiences.”
At the end of the three days Johnson performed Trio A Pressured: Horticultural Fragment for an interspecies audience, plants and humans, as part of A Program for Plants.
“I performed it as normal, once in silence and once with sound,” Johnson said. “Then I did an experiment, and I told them that I was going to perform it again, but this time my intention was going to be on the notion that I was performing for plants, empathy for a nonhuman species, to connect with that energy and for people to see what they saw.”
What was it like performing for plants? “It changed my way of approaching the work, it put me in a much larger context, the world got much bigger.”
How did Rainer feel about this proposal? “She was surprised, but I think it is intriguing to her that the dance continues to be relevant in all these different ways for different people’s practices.”
Trio A was groundbreaking in 1966 and interestingly remains relevant today, continuously asking the same questions and challenging what dance can be. Johnson has amassed 19 years of Trio A material in her body, which will make watching her on Saturday at Ten Tiny Dances a very rich experience. Not only will we see Trio A but we will also be privy to Johnson’s own adaptation of it for the parameters of the Tiny Dances stage. A treat, to say the least.
You can see Johnson perform Trio A Pressured (after Trio A) on Saturday, July 9, as part of Ten Tiny Dances Beaverton.