Brown and Rauschenberg: Forays into Collaboration

By In Dance

January 1, 2010, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Hopkins Center, Dartmouth College
Loew Auditorium, Hood Museum of Art
September 24, 2009

Jeff James, Howard Gilman Director of the Hopkins Center for the Arts: Welcome to a conversation between the incomparable Trisha Brown and her former colleague, and also a friend of mine, John Killacky. I want to thank our ever-collaborative colleagues at the Hood Museum of Art. They have not only come together with us to co-program today’s talk, but also delved into their collection to bring out a handful of exquisite Robert Rauschenberg prints to exhibit concurrent with Trisha’s dance company’s residency here, during which we will see a program featuring two Trisha Brown works with collaborative elements by the late, great Rauschenberg, who, by the way, was one of the earliest artists in residence at the Hop, early in his career back in 1963.

We have in our midst one of contemporary dance’s most adventurous and brilliant pioneers, Trisha Brown, whom, as some of our advertising has quoted, was called by The New York Times “the innovative high priestess of postmodernist dance.” While that claim certainly seems right in celebrating Trisha’s uniquely seminal contributions in today’s dance world, its implication somehow that that world—dance—has a church-like hierarchy is kind of funny—for me that world is much more a wonderfully messy hothouse, and it turns out Trisha is one of the best gardeners ever. Or, to us another even better analogy, a quote from Trisha herself on her collaborations with Rauschenberg, “I make order out of chaos, Bob makes chaos out of order, and where we meet is chaos.” I suspect we’ll hear more about that later since the Rauschenberg-Brown collaboration is the focus of today’s talk.

And about our moderator: If the field of arts management and philanthropy were a campus, John would be our dean. He is beloved for his loyalty and caring, admired for his creativity, and much-heralded for his very accomplished career—topping the list have been leadership positions at the Walker Arts Center, the Yerba Buena Arts Center, and the Pew Charitable Trusts. When I returned to the dance fold to manage Merce Cunningham’s company a few years ago, he was there, as I know he is for many of us across the country, with advice, encouragement, and even a few donor leads. As head of arts giving now for The San Francisco Foundation, he is helping to lead that community in profoundly adventurous directions. His presence here today is particularly apt, since among his early career successes was a stint managing the Trisha Brown Dance Company.

So please welcome a dance icon, Trisha Brown, and, as her co-conversationalist, one of the real heroes in the field of arts administration, John Killacky.

John: Thank you Jeff. At lunch I joked with Trisha about calling her doctor, since she has so many honorary degrees, but how do you say something to a priestess?

Trisha: You don’t. (laughter)

John: You’ve made over 100 dances, presented thousands of performances, in dozens of countries. In 1985 when you spoke before Congress about the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts, you said, “Artists in this country are not talking about a two car garage, we’d actually be happy with a two coat closet.” Did you ever imagine then, that you would be having the career you’re having now?

Trisha: I imagined it through my dreaming behavior. I had no way of knowing that I could rise this high in modern dance in this country and receive the affection of colleagues and dancers. I have so many memories; I am still uncomfortable with praise that comes to me. My mother didn’t want anyone to brag in her family, so I learned at a very young age, that this was normal.

John: We are here to talk about your collaborations with Bob Rauschenberg, who you described as your “best dance,” but first let’s talk about some history.

In the ‘50s, you graduated from Mills College, studying Martha Graham technique and composition by Louis Horst. In 1959 you attended a workshop with Anna Halprin and met some people who would become important colleagues, Yvonne Rainer and Simone Forti.

Trisha: When I was at Halprin’s, I learned a lot of lessons and carried them with me to New York and used them in early choreographies by myself and other people I worked with. It was quite radical work that was being considered there. I remember once Halprin asked us all to do an improvisation. That was really why I was there, to learn about improvisation. She had her company at the center because they knew how to help her realize what she wanted us to do. Simone Forti, who was a legendary improviser and dancer—she was the cat’s meow. She climbed up over the back of those of us who were down on the deck and she got up on our backs. It is quite difficult to crawl on your knees on people’s shoulders and heads. She got to the far edge of this little group, she leaned way out, she looked down, and I swear to God, she spit. (laughter)

I love these people very much. They were really really good artists. There was this one man who had really thick glasses, and around the corner, out of nowhere, he comes right straight at me and says umBAH, umBAH, three times. I won’t yell it again. I said to myself, “Edge over to this pathway and very discreetly run for it” (laughter). This wasn’t happening any other place in the world.

John: Yvonne Rainer was there that summer as well,

Trisha: Yvonne, and lot of interesting people. Anna invented the thing called “task dance” and meant that you take a tool, like a broom or a cardboard box with some magazines in it, and she says, “Work with this.” I got the broom and was sweeping the deck. It had cracks between the planks and I can get very obsessive about things. There I was, sweeping every crack in the place and then I would take a step forward (demonstrating) and I would go up with my hand and then my arm, up and out. Every time I did this it took me up little higher. I did it until everything came off of the floor and I was flat out on the horizon.

John: Robert Dunn, what were his classes (in New York) like?

Trisha: Bob Dunn had been asked by John Cage to transpose his assignments for music students into dance. He gave an assignment to a small group of us. He said, “Make a three-minute dance.” That was our assignment. I spent hours trying to figure out what could be the difference between a three-minute dance and a two-minute-49-second dance. Who would know? Who would care? (laughter)

Bob Dunn asked us to look at co-students’ work not to tell them what you don’t like about their work, or even what you do like about their work, just watch and tell them what you saw, which is a way of recording back to the students what they had done. That was brilliant!

We were in the Cunningham studio. Merce had lent it to us and then members of his company began to come in, sitting down all around. It became a very rich environment for experimentation and going beyond your normal thinking.

John: That group actually became the nucleus of what was then called Judson Dance Theater, wasn’t it?

Trisha: Yes

John: That’s when you met Bob Rauschenberg. You were in some of his pieces at Judson and he was in your Rulegame 5 in 1964. Talk about you and Bob during the Judson time in your life.

Trisha: Well, we were a village, a community of dancers that took energy from other dancers, and also a collective. We didn’t have any of that judgemental kind of behavior and that allowed people to be very creative. I’d made a dance with a skateboard and Bob—what had Bob done, I’d don’t remember that.

John: Had he done his parachute piece by then?

Trisha: No, that came in Washington D.C. Well, maybe I should just make things up, he’s not here to stop me. (laughter)

John: You couldn’t make up what he would do. He would always top it with reality, whatever you could dream up.

Trisha: We became very close. I have an analogy to our relationship. I like to stand on the shore with one foot and put my other foot into the boat. He liked to stand in the boat and shove off. (laughter) He was more careless than I was. Also he wasn’t a dancer at that point.

John: We want to certainly talk a lot more about Bob Rauschenberg, but before that, I first saw you dance with Grand Union in the gymnasium of the 14th Street YMCA. David Gordon was sitting there with a towel over his head. You and (Steve) Paxton were jumping on each other. What was different about Grand Union from what you all were doing in Judson?

Trisha: Well Judson had to sort out its rules at some point and it was a short period of time when everyone was coming in to see that work. There were some of us who were glued to the windows and back sides of the Judson Church waiting for John and Merce to come and see us. That was a kind of fissure in the trajectory of modern dance development because we did go far, this group of people that I’m trying to describe to you. I have to get a disclaimer because you know those years, ’63, ’62,’64, there was a lot of hanky-panky going on with these rehearsals; there was actually nudity, there was hollering, there was bringing in a yellow traffic divider, setting it down and making a course of some kind. Each person who was there has a different take as to what was going on. I didn’t like it that people smoked dope. I’m a bit square. (laughter) I just didn’t want to do that. It was awkward to mesh this radical group of people into a unity. I don’t think that we made it. I think when we broke out into Grand Union that we became more solid as a working team.

John: It was incredible, one of the most pivotal evenings of my life, made me see things differently. I am very grateful for that evening.

Trisha: That’s a great compliment.

John: From then you began doing more and more of your own work. Throughout the ‘70s you did a lot of “equipment pieces,” performing on museums walls, roof tops, rafts, and walking down the side of a building. Then in 1979, you made another radical departure with Bob Rauschenberg. With Glacial Decoy you made a piece for the proscenium stage. Talk about that piece and why you went from on the walls to behind that fourth wall.

Trisha: Those were rich days for me, because a lot of dancers do not talk to other people, they don’t share other ideas, put it that way. There I had a companion, one of the best, who I could run ideas past him and he could do the same with me. He always wanted to be a dancer. I had a board meeting, he was chairman of my board; someone said, “Trisha should explain to us what her new piece is going to be.” And he said, “Well who is your designer?”

John: For those of you that don’t know, Glacial Decoy has this beautiful four-part set and there were slides of photographs that went across. It seemed to be a trio, but at the end there was a fourth dancer and all had these beautiful see-through gowns. To have a Trisha Brown dance happen in this way was startling to people.

Trisha: I didn’t jump off a cliff on that. I was touring in Europe and I was asked to be on those stages. It just wasn’t seen here, but I got to work a lot on stages.

John: Then in the ‘80s, you had this phrase that I love. “Unstable molecular structures” is how you talked about your dancemaking. What does that mean to you?

Trisha: I work in cycles: Set and Reset came from Klaus Kertess who is an art expert in New York, also on my board, one of my best friends. He referred to the piece as “unstable molecular structure.” Perfect, because I wanted to go from dancing, we didn’t have videotape then, through improvisation to teaching improvisational phrases to my dancers, so it was incremental moves, delicious incremental moves, all over the place. A lot of the dancers, some kind of hijinks welled up within them and they started hiding behind the wings. (demonstrating) Something like this: you wouldn’t see their heads, and a dancer is running down along here, running up that aisle, and this dancer hiding in the wings grabs. (laughter) It led to joy, a tremendous joy in all of us. We broke rules. We invented rules. You couldn’t stop us.

John: Set and Reset had sets and costumes by Bob Rauschenberg with music by Laurie Anderson. It is absolutely claimed as one of the masterpieces of modern dance. I was blessed to work with you during that period. It was clear that a very special piece was being made. Did you know how seminal a piece Set and Reset was while you were making it?

Trisha: Dancers from all over the world were calling in, “Can I have tickets when you come to Paris?” They knew. It wasn’t even very much reviewed in the paper, but they knew about it. There was one performance, I think in Aix, where someone in the audience yelled out, “Happy Thanksgiving” because it was Thanksgiving. (laughter) This phenomenon took its turn.

John: I remember one time Laurie Anderson came to share some of the music she had been creating. She said, “Trisha, do you want the version with words or not with words?” It shows the kind of freedom you give your collaborators, you said “Well, I don’t care, it’s up to you. What do you want?”

In your next cycle of dancemaking—we are now jumping a few years ahead, “Valiant Cycle.” Bob and you did another piece, Astral Convertible. In this piece you asked him to create an inflatable set, but he didn’t give you an inflatable set.

Trisha: Here’s the genesis of this piece: we were in Spain, on the edge of the water. It was a beautiful time, out of doors dancing on platforms and things. The lady who was taking us to dinner said, “Just an incredible thing that goes on here, you should know about it, but of course we can’t have you because you have all those big sets by big artists.” I just thought “uh-uh.” I called Bob when I got home.

John: He created this modular set with the lights that were triggered by the dancers motion—wasn’t that right?

Trisha: There were towers on the stage.

John: And the dancers could move those towers. So you could, in fact, take that piece to that spot in Europe.

Trisha: I like these details sitting on the outside of the frame. The reason this woman was rhapsodizing about these performances was because they happened out of doors in little parks. I didn’t have the electricity. Bob was able to get it.

John: Car batteries.

Trisha: They built towers and on the towers were car radios and and car headlights with a triggering device. Everything came from cars and they were on these towers, two feet high, four feet high, six feet high, eight feet high. They were on wheels and they could be shoved across the stage. When they passed a trigger, the lighting would shift. (demonstrating, laughter) How do you keep up with someone like that?

John: That order and chaos dynamic—you both existed together and were comfortable with it. I think it would drive me completely mad. The next Rauschenberg piece, again is a radical departure, Foray Forêt, which we will see tomorrow night at the Hopkins Center. You and Bob worked on that one together as well.

Trisha: It was a hard one. Sometimes you have magic just flying out of people’s pockets, and other times you have things not going well. Bob wanted to just make the set. He didn’t feel too well during this period. He didn’t want to build a set, he wanted something that was more malleable that he could easily transport. I had a lighting designer who threw lights up on a backdrop to show him what his palette was and Bob made choices from those colors, so it was a big backdrop. As for the costumes, Bob called me up and said, “I just went to the fabric shop and I got you this sleaziest stuff I could find.” (laughter) He was fun. At first he put some kind of brassieres on them. I said, “Bob I don’t think so.” So he put cummerbunds on them, vivid colors and a lot of beautiful stuff.

John: But as you had been making these very opulent, fully theatricalized pieces, you do strip “Back To Zero” in this piece. It’s a perfect part of the program tomorrow night to see the bare essence in a way of some of your earlier aesthetic. Then there is this thing of music in Foray Forêt that is quirky and fabulous–the marching band.

Trisha: I know. (laughter) I was standing on the balcony in Barcelona and I heard Sousa and I thought “Huh? Sounds just like Aberdeen Washington.” I played with it for a long time in my mind. I always call Bob when I was getting into dicey things. I told him I had an idea, “I want you to know what I am doing. This is it: putting the marching band on the exterior of the space, while putting a refined elegant dance on the stage. They will cross the band, will come up behind the wings.” He said, “You know something? I think it’s your best bad idea.” (laughter) So we had to do it, right?

John: For me, it is so poignant when you hear that. Am I really hearing that? It is like a childhood memory for me.

Trisha: Exactly.

John: Last piece you and Rauschenberg worked on, he did the music for. He did beautiful costumes for. He did the lighting for. It was a magnificent solo, If You Couldn’t See Me. But again, it was in a Trisha Brown way. You performed the entire solo with your back to the audience.

Trisha: Yes, this was a very, very important collaboration for me. Bob runs his car off the road every once in a while with an idea and he knows how to go for it. He said, “I got a Yamaha instrument for Christmas. I am down here in Captiva and I am playing on it all the time. All I can see is you, but your back is to me.” It was very spooky, it was haunting. So, I went to work on it. I did ask him, I did have to get a couple of things right with him, “What kind of a costume?” If your back is to the audience, it is a different kind of movement than your front to the audience. In making a piece, any kind of a gesture that comes forward to the audience is talking to them with gestures. If you don’t show the gestures, even if you are standing with your back to the audience, you have to do something like, (demonstrating) something like that. Well, I hope it is a little spunkier than that. (laughter) I’m old!

John: What our friends in the audience are going to see tomorrow night is actually not that solo, but then it morphed into a duet, which is You Can See Us. Describe how it went from being a solo to a duet.

Trisha: Well I was working with Baryshnikov then and he was very interested in certain pieces, that being one of them.

John: Wasn’t it with Bill T. Jones first?

Trisha: Yes it was Bill. He got to it first, but Bill doesn’t have my body and I don’t have his body. It was a real task for me to stay on top of what he was doing. It was difficult to deal with. The next was Baryshnikov. I thought of Misha because he was special in how he did the duet. As you explained, he was always watching me.

John: It was so intimate because this incredible dancer was totally marking Trisha and he was hanging on to her every move for dear life. He was trying to dance in the way Trisha wanted him to dance and it was different than the way he had been trained. I thought it was just beautiful.

Trisha: I had a moment with him on a solo. I came out of very strict abstract movement research. I thought it would be great if he would take on a difficult memory. He made a phrase so pure, so sincere. He was doing something like this. (demonstrating) He was looking this way, and his arms were doing this. He did it so beautifully that I said, “What were you thinking about?” He said, “The last time I saw my mother she was standing on train platform and I know I would never see her again.”

John: The ending section of Foray Forêt is a sumptuous glorious solo that was your solo and this duet was your solo. Both of them were iconic. What is it like for you now to sit in the theater and see other people dance them?

Trisha: I get a little bit cranky. (laughter)

John: So do you see yourself dancing in those solos or are they now the dancers’ solos?

Trisha: They’re gone. I danced for a very long time. I danced about three weeks ago at Danspace with Elizabeth Streb. That was really a lot of fun.

John: One last Rauschenberg story. You were on tour in Naples Italy, with a piece by Nancy Graves, Lateral Pass. The set didn’t arrive. Rauschenberg was there, what did he do?

Trisha: He was making sculptures in Naples. They rented a truck and went all around Naples to junkyards and he got all this stuff and brought it back. Bob walks in onto the stage and dumps out all these little car licenses because they were cutting them up. Bob and his team putting metal together with metal.

John: So it is junk from all around.

Trisha: All around Naples. Bob makes all these beautiful sculptures and they were behind the back scrim. So I said, “I think I am going to make a garden back there, Bob.” Which I did, with these broken reconstructed sculptures. He saw how beautiful [it was] and said, “Can I play in your garden?”

John: I am aware of the time and want to fast-forward through the ‘90s. We could spend so much time there. Again, Trisha Brown changes. I know the Hopkins Center saw the trilogy you did with jazz artist Dave Douglas, but then you started choreographing to Bach, Monteverdi, Webern, and Schubert. It was like “Huh? The woman from Judson is dancing to Bach.”

Linda Wertmuller then invites you to go into the world of opera. Opera is now an amazing component of your life. The third piece we will see tomorrow is an excerpt from a full-length evening of Baroque Opera. What is it about opera that interests Trisha Brown right now?

Trisha: Challenge. I wasn’t sure I could do it. It is really a mountainous awesome piece of music. I think I found my motor in this piece. I love to dance. I love dance. I love structure. I love layering things, and I [had] never taken on a dark drama.

John: For me, so many of your other works play on the edge of stage, whether it is in the wings or walking along the back of stage or your solo with your back to the audience, but in L’Amour au Theatre you seize hold of the center of the stage with luscious dancing. And the backdrop you designed is drop dead gorgeous.

Trisha: Thank you.

John: After you perform here at Dartmouth, the company returns to Europe yet again. As I look at your history, Europe has embraced your work right from the beginning. What are the differences between European presenters, audiences, and critics and Americans?

Trisha: For one thing, they have a larger budget and a Minister of Culture. They give their dancers and choreographers Maisons de la Culture. They have the most exquisite studios. I was offered one at one time, but it was not possible to go because of my dancers and my family.

John: To me you are one of the very few of the greatest choreographers in America today. I think it is a sad statement that you spend more of your time in Europe than you here in the United States. I just want to acknowledge that and wonder if you have any reflections on that.

Trisha: Well, I’m a woman and that’s not the best gender to be in a big competition. I used to speak up about it, but it just alienates men, so I stopped doing that. What I transferred my energies to was helping new choreographers. I never turn a young woman choreographer down if she asks me is she can come over and talk something over with me that is confusing her. I say, “So when can you get here?”

Dance is one of the most fantastic disciplines in art. It comes from the body alone and it comes from the internal aspect of how one thinks and works. We are so fragile out there and we look like behemoths. I don’t understand why there is not more support for it. Maybe in time, like all things, maybe it will get better.

John: Last question. Postmodern. What does that term mean?

Trisha: Nothing. (laughter) No, it was a joke in the dressing rooms at Judson. We were all naming categories of visual art practitioners and someone said, “We were doing postmodern dance at Judson.” We all cracked up and no one countered us. (laughter)

John: I sure hope that the critical discourse is about your choreography and not whether you are a postmodern choreographer because the array of work you’ve made and the different aesthetics you’ve crawled over, under, around and through is so extraordinary.

I am aware of the time. I want to thank Margaret and Jeff for having us. Thank you all for coming. Please come to the performances over the next two nights. It is a very special evening that they brought to Dartmouth.

Thank you Trisha Brown.

This article appeared in the January/February 2010 issue of In Dance.

In Dance is a publication of Dancers' Group.