Trisha Brown's 1973 piece Sticks is a prime example of the choreographer's early repertoire. It's task-based; it takes place off the proscenium stage, and it unfolds through a set of deceptively simple spatial options. One end of a ten-foot-long stick is placed against the base of a wall, the other on a dancer's head. Facing the wall, that dancer "moves forward, maintaining the original angle of the stick, until the head is wedged in between the stick and the floor."
The dance unfolds until the task is complete, but a lot can happen in the interim: the angle breaks, the stick drops. All dancers breathe and find their balance differently. When Trisha Brown Dance Company performs Sticks outdoors, wind is a concern. At Milwaukee's Lynden Sculpture Garden two years ago, the audience enclosed the dancers in a tight circle to block the breeze.
"[Brown] came up with the most incredibly simple but rigorous ideas," says Carolyn Lucas, an associate artistic director of the company. "You can feel everyone in the audience wanting them not to drop their sticks."
Sticks is part of the company's current touring program, In Plain Site, which brings the seventy-nine-year-old choreographer's early works and excerpts from her proscenium pieces to all kinds of nontraditional venues, from an old archery range to an empty art museum. This weekend, the company concludes a weeklong residency at Duke with shows at Duke Gardens and the Nasher Museum of Art (visit the Duke Performances website for times). The visit is also a part of South Arts' Dance Touring Initiative, a three-year push to bolster engagement with modern dance and contemporary ballet in the South.
Like the Merce Cunningham Dance Foundation's Legacy Plan, In Plain Site is part of a blueprint for preserving Brown's work after her illness-related exit from the company in 2009. Duke Performances director Aaron Greenwald, who has also presented Cunningham's company, sees a similar quandary in both cases. How does a dance company go on when a director with "such a specific vision" no longer presides over it? In Plain Site, broadly conceived, is proving to be a capacious container—or perhaps, a bloodline—for carrying forward Brown's movement, which looks fluid but is highly rigorous. The format allows dancers and audience members to dissect the works up close, in new spaces, and to see the phrases in smaller pieces and different spatial relationships.
"Trisha often choreographed each section of a dance with the same intensity as the whole work," Lucas says. "There are certain excerpts that feel quite satisfying and complete just in seeing an idea taken out on its own."
In a way, it's a return to form. Audiences can get as close to Brown's work as they could in the sixties and seventies, before she transitioned to large theaters as she became world-famous. This flexible, intimate restaging of seminal works invites curiosity, play, and interaction—a lively way to make sure Brown's important work goes on.
Lucas calls In Plain Site "a complete reference to Trisha's history," especially as regards site-specific work. In the 1960s, Brown worked with the now-legendary Judson Dance Theater in New York. The collective, which also included Yvonne Rainer and Twyla Tharp, experimented with improvisation and everyday movement. Rainer's 1965 No Manifesto famously documented an anti-decorative ethos: "No to spectacle. No to virtuosity."
The titles of Brown's works from the late sixties and early seventies describe sites, objects, and actions: Falling Duet (I), Roof Piece, Man Walking Down the Side of a Building, Sticks. They took place in galleries and on rooftops, materializing across the canopy of New York's downtown art scene. Brown's first proscenium work was 1979's Glacial Decoy; American Dance Festival audiences saw Stephen Petronio Company take it on last summer. It makes full use of theatrical space, hinting toward the increasingly expansive proscenium works that defined Brown's career from the 1980s onward.
Glacial Decoy is known as one of Brown's landmark pieces, but it wasn't her work alone. Robert Rauschenberg projected a black-and-white landscape to create an evolving backdrop. In fact, Brown collaborated with many kinds of artists. Laurie Anderson and John Cage composed music for a couple of pieces; Donald Judd, Nancy Graves, and Fujiko Nakaya contributed set and costume design. Brown herself is known for her sculptural drawings, and she made films.
"She was thinking about all the ways dance is experienced," says Duke Performances associate director Eric Oberstein. The Duke Performances residency, during which former company members have workshopped with Duke students and local dancers, culminates in a free symposium as well as the In Plain Site performances. "Accumulations: Exploring the Legacies of Trisha Brown," headed by Duke professor Thomas DeFrantz, takes place at the Nasher from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday. It will bring together company members, dance researchers, and practitioners in a wide-ranging interdisciplinary conversation about Brown's work.
There should be a lot to talk about: "Site-specific" is an expansive, ambiguous term with a complicated history. It's not uncommon for site work—whether in the 1960s or our post-recession times—to emerge, in part, from the financial hardships of booking traditional theaters. But many foundational site-specific choreographers, including Brown, went on to become dance stars, touring proscenium work around the world.
The Nasher and Duke Gardens are perhaps more porous to the community outside of the university than are its theaters, and part of the intent in placing work there is to encourage attunement to the landscape. The idea is also connected to a local dance climate that emphasizes getting out of formal settings to engage new audiences; for evidence, look no further than the current season of Durham Independent Dance Artists.
Choosing which of Brown's ninety-odd works to perform at a given site requires balancing unexpected factors in the days, hours, or minutes leading up to the performance. Are the surfaces covered with grass or concrete? How close can dancers get to the artwork? Is there enough room for people to comfortably gather? Lucas has a few ideas, not yet conclusive, for the Nasher performance. In the Duke Gardens program, audiences will move from the lawn to the terrace to see the solo Locus, and then to the pond to see dancers perform Group Primary Accumulation on rafts.
"How do we break down that barrier between performer and audience?" says Oberstein. "[We want to] get people thinking, how can I experience art in an everyday setting in my community?"
This is where In Plain Site necessarily diverges from Rainer's deadpan manifesto, which eventually declares, "No to involvement of performer or spectator." When a company goes on without its creator, that kind of involvement might partially constitute the artwork itself, and even help keep it alive.
This article appeared in print with the headline "On Task"