Trisha Brown began her groundbreaking dance career in the 1960s as a member of the Judson Church Theater. She redefined dance’s vocabulary and expanded its reach into the visual arts, creating site-specific dances (many for museums), as well as works for the proscenium stage. Her work is known for its geometric structure, based on her drawings of shapes and spatial coordinates.
Brown, 79, retired three years ago but the dance company that bears her name carries on the postmodern choreographer’s work. This weekend and next they’ll perform “In Plain Site,” a site-specific work based on Brown’s repertory at Duke University’s Sarah P. Duke Gardens and Nasher Museum of Art.
In a recent phone interview, Carolyn Lucas, the company’s associate artistic director in New York City, talked about Brown’s explorations, what it was like to work with the dancer and what lies ahead for the company. Having grown up in Raleigh, Lucas attended the N.C. School of the Arts for her last two years of high school, went on to the State University of New York at Purchase, N.Y., and then worked with the Limon Dance Company before joining the Trisha Brown Company. Today, she wants to preserve Trisha Brown’s repertory. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation:
Q: What should audiences expect at your Duke performances?
A: I think people will get a sense of Trisha’s evolution in the program that seems a nice way to introduce audience members to the works. I’ve been to the Duke Gardens and things we’ve established are the performance will start in the meadow, but here’s the fun of it, really getting the dancers out there, to know that the scale of the dancers and the scale of the meadow will work. Sometimes limitations can erupt in a nice surprise.
Q: But how do you create site-specific work with just Brown’s repertory?
A: If you have an amazing repertory of early works and ones from the proscenium stage, it’s like hanging paintings on the wall. We basically try to create a program that has a relation to the place itself. It’s always good to be open to the space itself. We try to stay flexible.
Q: What makes Brown’s work so groundbreaking?
A: She stepped back and she looked at her body in a unique way. She created her own body vocabulary. Trisha was an incredible process-oriented artist. That is what I hold most dear. That’s one of the things that keeps me interested every day.
Q: What about improvisation in her choreographic process?
A: There is improvisation involved but it’s highly structured. I always think of her as scientific, in love with the right triangle, in love with the plum line. Just really working through all this movement exploration. There is Trisha’s idea that the movement is loose and free, but underneath is all this rigor, this incredible movement vocabulary that can go from something simple to something highly complex.
Q: What was it like to be Trisha Brown’s choreographic assistant?
A: Basically, I was a dancer in the company. In 1993, I moved into the role of Trisha’s choreographic assistant. It was a wonderful experience. It was working alongside Trisha, doing a lot of videotaping. It was very multifaceted. We saw the same sparks fly. We just had a connection.
Q: How did so much of her work end up being videotaped?
A: She had chosen video as how she was going to document her choreographic process. She wanted me to be on the outside and her to be the dancer on the inside. This was like the dark ages when I started doing this. One of the amazing things about the video is that it’s on formats that are endangered. We’re trying to preserve as much documentation as possible.
Q: What does the future hold, in addition to her archive of videos, notebooks and drawings?
A: I think we’re incredibly fortunate to have such an archive. We’re dedicated to sharing that interactively with the world. There’s a constant comment that Trisha’s work is timeless. Trisha has a beautiful repertory that was performed on the proscenium stage and will continue. Site-specific is defined for us as anything that’s not presented on a proscenium stage. It’s a trajectory and it is a process. I think that Trisha’s works are very strong and they do have a place in the future. There are going to be different twists and turns along the way. For the first time, I’m seeing a whole generation of dancers who’ve been trained by Trisha’s alumni.
What: Trisha Brown Company performing “In Plain Site”
When/where: 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 28, and 2:30 and 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 30, at Duke University’s Sarah P. Duke Gardens. The dancers will travel from the meadow to the terraces and on to the larger pond, where they will perform on rafts. Also, 6 and 8:30 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 29, Nasher Museum of Art.
Cost: $32; $15 age 30 and under; $10 Duke students $10.