When people think about the '60s modern-dance revolution, their minds run to New York and the downtown scene where, in cheap, barely heated lofts and in the confines of the Judson Church in the Village, a bunch of young dancers, painters, and conceptual artists made up sometimes-complex formulas for undancey dances. Dance, they said, was "any movement to look at," including someone tripping over a crack in the sidewalk, or a person eating a sandwich.
What many don't realize is that the New York revolution relied on a number of West Coast mavericks that migrated east. Among them was Washington native Trisha Brown, who cut her teeth at Mills College, from which she graduated in 1958. She explored dance improvisation at Reed College, where she launched the dance department, worked with experimental choreographer Anna Halprin on Halprin's deck in Marin, and finally, in 1960, hightailed it to New York.
There, she was influenced by a few others who had left San Francisco, notably trailblazing choreographer and San Francisco native Yvonne Rainier. Rainier and Brown soon made dance history as two of the founding members of the Judson Church Theater. New Yorker critic Joan Acoccella, who will interview Brown at UC Berkeley's Wheeler Auditorium at 7 p.m. Thursday, has said that the "primary concern" of dance modernists "has been their medium, dance." And while the Judsonians were soon labeled postmodernists, their concerns, have been largely the same as modernists in the other arts: the medium itself. What distinguished them from their "modern" dance predecessors was that they redefined what constituted dance. It was no longer bound to narrative, like Martha Graham's, nor committed to a circumscribed movement vocabulary, like Merce Cunningham's, or to certain kinds of music. Shattering those limits has been especially true of Brown, who early on experimented with mathematical patterns, had her dancers scale building facades or semaphore across Manhattan rooftops, and even works with jazz.
The upcoming Berkeley run, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at Zellerbach Hall, is a good glimpse of Brown's celebrated 35-year-old company. It is presenting the local premiere, Present Tense, a dance hailed for its floaty use of space, with music by John Cage. Brown will then stage her recent foray into structured improvisation, Groove and Countermove, using a jazz score by Dave Douglas. She is also reprising a company classic, Set and Reset, with music by Laurie Anderson and visuals by Robert Rauschenberg.
What really sets Brown apart from her peers is not just her intellectual rigor or daring, but her synthesis of braininess and sensual flow in an atmosphere of almost prairie-style modesty. In recent years her work seems like stream of consciousness made physical, with solid points of reference and wild, zigzagging echoes in time and space in between. While it is true that Brown echoes Cunningham's love of form for form's sake, one would never mistake the 68-year-old choreographer's dreamy disquisitions for the work of the master of chance operations. Her dance is Brownian through and through: zigzag, irregular movements that appear produced by the action of invisible forces.
The lecture is free; performance tickets cost $26-$48, available at CalPerfs.Berkeley.edu or 510-642-9988.
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