Trisha Brown: Laughing with the bricklayer

After a 10-year absence, the legendary company leaps back into Portland with a splendid vertigo

Tossing their arms: Neal Beasley, Leah Morrison | Photo © Laurent Philippe 2011


There’s a video going around the Internet of a football player, weighing almost 300 lean pounds, leaping from a dead stand to the top of a 55-inch ledge. The numbers give our literal brain something to compare and point to as a rare or strange thing. However, the real frisson of the feat comes from somewhere in our idle muscles, sitting down, staring at a screen. It’s a visceral reaction to of the exotic flavor of density, strength, and agility combined in such quantities that manages to sneak through the tiny, compressed video enough that something in your body knows that it’s witnessed a physically extraordinary accomplishment.

Last night, I left the Trisha Brown performance with a similar feeling, but it wasn’t purely visceral. My brain and my eyes felt the same intrigued vertigo. The intricacy of Brown’s choreography and its clockwork integration with its scores seem far too dense and complex to leave room for fluidity and lightness and humor and all those other bright flavors. But, there they were, lingering with as much intensity as the deep structural experiments and notions that underpin Brown’s body of work.

In an interview in The Twentieth Century Performance Reader, Trisha Brown once said, “If I am beginning to sound like a bricklayer with a sense of humor, you are beginning to understand my work.” I was reminded of this quote throughout the performance, as the dancers’ movements meshed and locked with the music and each other to an uncanny degree. Brown’s choreography and consideration of the score has a craftswoman’s discipline and structure, without limiting her freedom or playfulness. If Brown had become a painter instead of a dancer and choreographer, she’d be more Lopez, less Estes.

I was especially struck by the depth of her engagement with the score in “Les Yeux et L’Âme.” In contemporary performance, it’s common to pick a score that is abstract enough to abstain from conversation with the dancers, one that shares a general tone, or one that provides complementary textures to the work. In this way, scores are used to build and furnish a sonic room in which the dancers move. Which is not to say that cues and rhythm and blocking disappeared sometime around 1930, but that the contemporary expectation of how intricately the musical and movement scores will interlock has a large amount of freedom. No one will raise an eyebrow if the soundscape noodles around somewhere that the dancers do not go. If the status quo is to build an aural room around the dancers, Trisha Brown makes jungle gyms, obstacle courses, and climbing walls.

The program eases into the more elaborate studies by opening with “Watermotor,” simple, short, and lyrical, danced by the almost impossibly fluid Leah Morrison. As “Les Yeux et L’Âme” and “Foray Forêt” get deep into it, there are two distinct moments which I can point to (among many faster, smaller ones which I can’t) that exemplifly this frisson of seemingly disparate qualities intensifying rather than contradicting each other.

The first is a particular entrance that appears in two separate pieces. Tara Lorenzen enters at a run while two of the male dancers cross the stage from opposite corners at the same speed. They intersect perfectly in the center as she leaps, and without breaking stride the two men turn her body in mid-air and set her down. I challenge any viewer to find another chance to watch another operation that could break both of someone’s collarbones performed with such effortless nonchalance.

I won’t spoil the surprise of the second moment. I’ll just say that when Robert Rauschenberg decides to score a marching band into a performance, he doesn’t make it a gimmick. The Oregon Crusaders marching band gave an excellent show in “Foray Forêt” with what must be their most subdued performance to date. It is worth noting that this is a show that uses a marching band with great subtlety.

The final, quiet piece, “I’m Going to Toss My Arms –If you Catch Them They’re Yours” (2011), had not been shown in the U.S. until it came to the Newmark last night. A battery of giant fans joined the whole group on stage, creating a criss-crossing wind tunnel for the dancers to manipulate. It’s an economical, tight, and light-spirited piece, and it’s well-placed at the end of the program. There’s a special joy in recognizing the combined vocabulary of an artist’s career in her late pieces, and the show does a good job of teaching the audience through the first half.

Perhaps because “Arms” is the newest piece in the program, it included two of the only arguably imperfect movements of the night: one backwards bump into a fellow dancer and one stumble over part of a costume removed by the fans, both by Tara Lorenzen. Though the show started tight, the group’s energy did seem to tighten more as the night went on. Of course, moments like those small bumps certainly wouldn’t be as noticeable had the rest of the night not moved with such clockwork and fluidity.

Last time Portland hosted Trisha Brown – a decade ago – marked the beginning of White Bird’s Uncaged Series. To celebrate her return, a dance workshop (sold out) and a free lecture this Saturday give audiences a chance to engage  further  with her highly influential career. At that rate of frequency, I would not risk losing this chance to see the troupe now. It’s a solid, exciting program spanning 40 years, and Trisha Brown has one of the most prestigious CVs in contemporary dance. That alone is enough to make the night interesting But it’s the bricklayer’s sense of humor that makes it fun.


Catherine Thomas reviews Trisha Brown here for The Oregonian.


The program repeats at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 12-13, at the Newmark Theatre of the Portland Center for the Performing Arts, 1111 S.W. Broadway. Tickets: $30, $20 student/senior, 503-725-3307,

One Response.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    It has been quite a while since I watched a performance with such pleasure that I had no desire to analyze why, but that’s the way I felt at the Trisha Brown Company performance on Thursday night, particularly during the first half of the program. I agree that Leah Morrison danced “Watermotor” with boneless fluidity and would add that her body is strikingly similar to Brown’s. However, a film clip of Brown dancing a bit of the solo was shown at Susan Rosenberg’s lecture at PICA on Saturday, and it looked completely different–not boneless at all, but angular and jagged. Morrison’s water motor rippled; Brown’s sputtered; both were wonderful.
    That solo is danced in silence; “Les Yeux et l’Ame” a startlingly musical piece, as Nim describes so vividly, to Rameau’s gorgeous music for the opera “Pygmalion” is representative of Brown’s work in opera in the past decade or so. The calligraphic backdrop was made by Brown herself, with her body, her whole body, dancing if you will in paint on paper. She has always been an intensely visual artist. And she hasn’t always had such a sure touch with music, particularly not with melody, but “Les Yeux” is beguiling in its unity, delightful in its wit, and as Cerinda Survant said to me when the lights went up, “this is why we love dance.”
    It’s certainly why we love Trisha Brown, whose explorations of the possibilities of the human body over nearly half a century have brought her full circle to an almost traditional dance that is about…dancing to music,loving the act of dancing, loving the people you’re dancing with.
    Brown’s work is never literal, but I can’t help viewing Foray Foret as a work textured with autobiographical detail. When I interviewed her in her SoHo loft a few years back, we talked about the influence of the place she grew up, Aberdeen Washington, a wide place on the road, facing the water with the Olympic forest behind her. Brown climbed tall trees, which surely had something to do with “Man Walking Down the Side of a Building” (also shown during Rosenberg’s lecture). Watching “Foray Foret,” and the shimmer of Rauschenberg’s costumes, I couldn’t help thinking of it as a memoir of childhood, the fading glisten of the feathers on birds her father had shot, the dancers deployed at the edges of the stage, showing themselves from the wings and hiding again, like creatures of the forest; The sound of a marching band, fading in and fading out as music can in memory or a dream.
    I must confess my heart sank when the curtain rose on “I’m Going to Toss My Arms”–not another deconstructed stage for god’s sake I thought. And it took me a while to start enjoying the interplay of dancers and industrial fans, and the very interesting score. The piece is fun, the dancers are enjoying themselves, and I’m glad I saw it, but it was the other three works on this program that made me too excited to sleep.

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