Choreographer's works defied gravity and convention

Trisha Brown.
Trisha Brown.

NEW YORK • American choreographer Trisha Brown, a pioneer of postmodern dance whose gravitydefying work shaped generations of creators, died last Saturday at the age of 80.

Her dance company confirmed she died in San Antonio, Texas, after a lengthy illness. She had been treated for vascular dementia.

Brown withdrew from the stage five years ago after decades as a leading light of international dance, working mostly out of New York, but also choreographing for the Paris Opera Ballet.

The Trisha Brown Dance Company paid tribute to "one of the most acclaimed and influential choreographers and dancers of her time" whose "ground-breaking work forever changed the landscape of art". Brown, whose influences ranged from avant-garde music to molecular biology, shattered norms of dance starting in the 1960s.

From the beginnings of ballet, aspiring dancers were taught to be rigid models of beauty and expression - perching their backs up and holding their buttocks in.

Brown's dancers instead mastered motion, using harnesses and ropes as they challenged the concept of gravity and blurred the line between dance and visual art.

In the deceptively simple Man Walking Down The Side Of A Building, a dancer goes out as if on a stroll, but descends at a 90-degree angle from the rooftop.

Mr Jamey Hampton, a friend and artistic director at BodyVox dance company in Portland, Oregon, recalled a similar piece as "wild, innovative, beguiling and somehow completely accessible".

In 1971's Roof Piece, 10 dancers appeared atop nearby buildings of New York's then gritty Soho neighbourhood, improvising moves to which the next performer would respond.

She also incorporated objects from everyday life, such as spending hours on stage pushing a broom.

"I make radical changes in a mundane way," she wrote in a widely cited essay in the 1970s on the meaning of "pure movement".

"I also use quirky, personal gestures; things that have specific meaning to me, but probably appear abstract to others," she added.

Brown, in an interview with artists' magazine Bomb, said she believed in the value of improvisation and would incorporate apparent mistakes by dancers if they proved effective.

"I will do anything to get a good dance, invent new methods, employ trickery, endure experimentation - basically, I create new phrases on them or me or somewhere in between," she said.

Brown was heavily influenced by John Cage, one of the 20th-century giants of United States experimental music, who had challenged the concept of neat compositions and believed in introducing an element of chance into works, making them more like nature.

She collaborated with artists including composer Laurie Anderson and painter Robert Rauschenburg in an effort to create pieces that defied categorisation as dance, visual art or music.

But, for years, she also choreographed works that lacked music entirely - as well as other traditional elements such as plot and a clear setting.

Some of her most distinctive pieces are her "unstable molecular structure" works, in which she likened the motion of dancers to that of molecules under a microscope.

Born in Aberdeen, Washington, Brown graduated in 1958 from the Mills College in California and arrived in New York three years later in search of new directions.

She became a founding member of the Judson Dance Theater, an influential collective of avant-garde performers that emerged in 1960s New York, setting up her own company in 1970 and going on to create more than 100 dance works and six operas.

Brown danced past age 70, in 2007 performing in I Love My Robots, a collaboration with Anderson and Japanese artist Kenjiro Okazaki in which humans and robots interacted on stage.

Her final two choreographies came in 2011 - Les Yeux De L'ame (The Eyes Of The Soul) and I'm Going To Toss My Arms - If You Catch Them They're Yours.

Her husband, artist Burt Barr, died last November. She is survived by a son, four grandchildren, a brother and a sister.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2017, with the headline 'Choreographer's works defied gravity and convention'. Print Edition | Subscribe