photo: Andrea Mohin/New York Times
Since 1975 I have seen each piece Trisha Brown made. (I danced in seven, including Homemade, the solo with the 16mm projector strapped on the dancer’s back.) But of the works that came before, until last fall’s Whitney Museum reconstructions, most existed for many of us only as black and white photo images: Steve Paxton with long hair and headband, bounding eagerly, suspended by wires and perpendicular to the Whitney’s wall; Sylvia Whitman leaning serenely away from her partner, held by a simple contraption of plywood and rope.
Unifying these works was the investigation of the physics at play in the area between vertical and horizontal. A body can lean just so far before it begins to fall. Trisha’s exploration played on that tipping point repeatedly, finding just how far one could stretch out on an impossible incline before surrendering to gravity, or, using various kinds of apparatus, creating the illusion of an ordinary action while in an extraordinary posture. In the early experiments we saw at the Whitney, moments of falling were postponed through ingenious means of counterbalancing. In duos when one partner leaned a bit too far out, equilibrium faltered. Seeing the dancers negotiate the tipping point, repeatedly restoring their formation, was much of the pleasure.
These experiments turning the body every which way in relation to gravity, initially with the support of ropes or other dancers, were crucial to developing Brown’s signature movement style. After fully investigating gradations of suspended ‘off-balance,’ she was ready to take away the supports and deal with the consequences, leading to her channeling the momentum of falling into surrendered ease, updraft and flight.
The physical practice that made this movement possible was to lengthen the body between feet and head rather than crumpling in the direction of gravity’s pull. This lengthening leant extra force to whatever movement followed a fall.
Like so many of the themes she investigated early on, Trisha has cycled back repeatedly to variations on suspension and the 90-degrees-to-the-wall relationship. In Set and Reset (1985), Diane Madden ‘walked’ on the wall supported by fellow dances. In the next work, Lateral Pass, the dancers bounded into the air, supported by bungee cords. Later, every bit of related investigation was folded into the miraculous aerial work in Orfée (2000) where the figure of Musica is suspended by wires drawing her upward and side to side in a musically nuanced series of tumbles, swoops and walks on air.
The early works shown at the Whitney elevate the pedestrian, spinning it into high art. Walking on The Wall recalls looking out a city window to figures on a sidewalk below. Their action is stretched and distorted through a semi-slow motion time warp. The action reverses too, winding and rewinding the figures, bringing them close enough to link arms, and to assist each-other when passing or navigating the room’s corner. In charcoal gray clothing, on a plain white wall, these figures’ slowed down ambulation makes us wonder at the beauty of something so seemingly ordinary, yet anything but.