Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Learning from Line Up

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe
. Asked to consider which Trisha Brown choreography would be most suitable to teach the students at Franklin & Marshall College,* I weighed the options. Locus, the dance created within a cube that gives the performer options to cut and splice material as she sees fit, dances on that distinctly Brownian edge of immense precision coupled with great freedom. But Locus takes either a long time or a lot of intensive practice to get the movement ‘into your bones’ enough to be able to play at performance level. Glacial Decoy, that glorious torrent of a dance, is a whopping challenge for even the most advanced dancers. As a learning exercise it’s great for a college group, but again, getting to performance level would take more than three intensive weekends. Line Up, made of short dances related to the architecture of the body in relation to other bodies and to space, seemed an ideal fit. Adaptable in its number of performers (groups can switch between its discrete sections when only five performers are needed), and with some very simple-to-learn parts, it’s also a setting for its central complex jewel, the demanding 'Solo Olos,' with three phrases done forward and in retrograde, and dancers bumped in and out of unison by a ‘caller’. On the whole Line Up seemed a challenging, but do-able project. What I did not realize ahead of time was how fully the aesthetic and ethos of the time Line Up was made needs to be understood and embraced by the dancers to perform it convincingly.

Just standing. Paraphrasing Martha Graham, it takes a year to learn to run, five years to learn to walk and ten years to learn to stand. Being simple is among the hardest things to do.
The improvisations based on the instruction “line up” that are the glue binding Line Up were originally set through a process of “building.” Trisha’s group at the time was all-female and included several dancers whose allegiance was to somatic practice – Alexander technique, body-mind centering, Elaine Summers’ and Andre Bernard’s teaching. For them, standing, not to mention the other pedestrian action at the heart of Line Up was a practice with nuance and interest. The simpler the movement, the more the dancer could be aware of the mechanics of the body, the feeling of it, and the unfolding sculptural form they contributed to.

Students today may not have encountered an approach that encourages them to do less and feel more. They might feel bereft without recourse to drama or particular movement patterns – the high leg, the repeating turn - or without filigree, ornament, or ‘personal expression’ as they usually think of it. Line Up teaches that being stripped down is actually hard but plenty revealing. That how you are is as important as what you do. That there’s interest in subtlety – gradations of timing, angle, and energetic quality. Drama comes with the movement or stillness of the eyes, with the little games that arise between dancers and are just as quickly abandoned. In Trisha’s parlance: “Do it and get off it.”

The Time It Takes. Beginning to study the piece again after 28 years, it interested me to see how patient Trisha was in developing the material over the course of the piece. The culture has sped up in the interim. Line Up starts off with a real-time task that takes whatever time it takes. In ‘Sticks’, dancers enter with 10’ wooden poles and lie supine along one line, joining their sticks at the tips. They slide themselves out from under their sticks, each making a full circle by coming up and over her stick, to return to lying supine, all the while attempting to keep sticks joined. The dancers use spoken commands to keep tuning their connections. Like most of Line Up, the simplicity of the action belies how complex and uncompromising it is to do.

At the beginning of our process the nine F&M dancers needed to get a feel for the climate Line Up grew out of. It was a dance for all women, simply and uniformly clad, strong and smart but reflecting the non-heroic performer ethos of its time. Its virtuosity was brainy rather than flashy; its tongue-in-cheek wit a fresh breeze.

We improvised with pedestrian material. We experienced ‘release’ practices. We spoke about the Rainer ‘No Manifesto’. We looked at photographs. But the most effective way for the F&M students to understand how to ‘do less’ with clarity and confidence was to watch the original cast on video. In their stripped down language of walking, standing, running, and lying down, ‘expressiveness’ came in little bursts of energy, in choices to complement or contrast, or to touch.

Details .Within Line Up’s stripped down palette, details are crucial. With Trisha Brown’s material, no matter which piece, a student will often think she’s ‘got it’ when what she has is a rough approximation. The level of attention to detail —exact placement, timing, energetic quality, and interrelationship — is exponentially more exact than is often asked of students. This is what makes or breaks the performance. Distances of a few inches difference determine whether an image coalesces or looks like mush. Knowing that this dancer fires her movement a hair before you do, that the relative angles of your arms should be like this, that the space between you is exactly this much, and that each Rube Goldbergian chain of events has a very particular sequence is crucial to the organized chaos that suffuses many of Line Up’s sections.

In a process that extended from the blazing colors of fall through the first nip of winter, the F&M dancers homed in on their own invigorating interpretation of Line Up. They drilled the phrases of ‘Solo Olos’. They counted out the complex pattern of ‘Figure Eight.’ They found their sultry siren selves for ‘Spanish Dance.’ They ran and reran the ‘line up’ sections, negotiating with each other about moments of connection and group formations.
In the end, I witnessed their Line Up as a vehicle goading each dancer to uncover her own confident, clear and strong performing self. The dance delivers up the dancer: full blown, as a woman of intelligence at work and play. And it reveals the brilliance of what we often take for granted – simple relationships and architectures. That it spins out into baroque complexity with 'Solo Olos' is its crowning glory. ###

*Dr. Lynn M. Brooks, Chair of Dance, and Pamela S. Vail, Assistant Professor, extended this invitation. Pam successfully wrote the NEA Masterpiece grant that made the reconstruction possible.

With many thanks to the eight current and former F&M students who took part in the Line Up project—Triana Brown, Emily Grossner, Emily Herchenroether, Tori Lawrence, Jaclyn Malat, Allison Massof, Alexandria Ross, Michaila Stevens—and to Pamela Vail as performer and rehearsal director.

So Inclined

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 OrfĂ©e (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.