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© Ismene Brown 2017

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"My childhood - the very beautiful, natural scene, rainforests, spring - that environment does give you an internal portion, which becomes part of your work"

photo Trisha Brown Dance Company

27 MARCH 17

Trisha Brown is worth mourning. She was a charmer among radicals, one of the dancemakers whose work I most looked forward to following, knowing it might be not just challengingly new, but also bring strange, amusing and emotive associations. We in the UK were limited in what we saw of her pieces, and I was sad when it seemed to me in the early 2000s that the newer work her company brought over was dipping in energy and inner light; I was very happy that in 2010 she turned up at the Tate Modern with an "art action" that had the wit and playfulness of old, her dancers making surprising little interventions in an exhibition of modern American sculptures.

She died last week of vascular dementia at 80, an end ominously similar to that of her mother, as she told me in this interview. (See the Telegraph obituary.)

During my 15 years as the Telegraph's dance critic I felt lucky to have met her twice, in 1997 and 2003. Unlike the coolly elegant Lucinda Childs, combative Twyla Tharp and urbane Yvonne Rainer, old colleagues of hers from the iconoclastic Judson Theatre era whom I'd also interviewed, I found Trisha Brown to be rather shy and surprisingly reticent in manner, with her unruly hair and gentle smile, not at all the iconoclast that she in fact was.

There was often a great and lovable youngness in her work. Even with her daredevil Manhattan climbing pieces, Brown was a kind of Banksy, a wild child letting rip in the landscape, her pieces tending to radiate a glee for escape, adventure and flight. For one thing, she had a genius for getting dancers off stage - I've never seen any other choreographer make the frame of the theatre proscenium look like an authority to be ignored and defied; her dances seemed to simply stream on indefinitely out either side of your vision, beckoning you through the wings into the freedom of forests and lands beyond, possibly into outer space even. Watching Glacial Decoy was an eerie delight, so was If You Couldn't See Me, her back-to-front solo in which she danced alluringly with her back to us, and we wondered what she was looking at while we were looking at her.

Her career was brimming with deliberate direction changes and distinct exploration periods; in my limited but usually grateful acquaintance with her work, Brown's pieces didn't form into a line so much as a creative hopscotch across half a century, leaping from spectacularly harnessed gravity-defiance to maths ideas, from movement accumulations to invisibility games and to choreographing Bach and Schubert.

Evidently an inquiring intellect designed the details and masonry of such a surprising path, but the reason Trisha Brown was one of my cherishable choreographers was that I often found her creations bubbling with youth, instincts and illusions, gaiety and dreaminess, and only rarely with ball-busting postmodern structural theory.

Our second meeting, in 2003, was material for this Telegraph feature, relating to the imminent London premiere of her choreographed production of Schubert's desolate 1828 song cycle Winterreise for the great baritone, and gifted mover, Simon Keenlyside (whose girlfriend at the time was one of her dancers). This is the transcript.


ISMENE BROWN: How strange it feels to be in hot modern urban New York thinking about William Müller's poems about a young man escaping in remote snowy country from this betrayal. Did you know this piece before Simon Keenlyside proposed it?

TRISHA BROWN: I had heard it, though I wasn't as familiar with it as I became.

The poetry of Winterreise is so specific in its images - did you fear the need to be illustrative? Because you are not illustrative in your other work.

No. But storytelling is one of those ancient practices, especially between a mother and child, or older and younger siblings. I've made my way - since 1997, when I was making the material for the Monteverdi Orfeo [1998, with René Jacobs at Brussels' Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie] - through the very difficult proposition of making active movement, or movement designed to depict a message, a story. And then I did the Sciarrino opera [Luci mie traditrici, 2001, also at La Monnaie], and I knew more then. You go to another plateau every time, entering into the complex world of music, text, poetry, character, emotion, psychology, purpose of actor - who is it, what are they doing. And each time I have a little more facility to approach it.

And the whole grand issue of should a singer dance or move, can they move?, that was resolved in Orfeo. I feel that the work expands their dimension, so it's very good for them to do it. There are logistics that I have to adhere to - eg if I use these three dancers, and the company has to go on tour, how one does that.

Does it cause you anxiety to work with text, especially of such classical type? The genre of German lieder is very strongly depictive and imaginative. Is it a pleasure? Is it frightening?

Well, I was terrified with the Orfeo, and I cautioned myself silently to do the very best job I possibly could, because I haven't the time to work my way up the opera ladder that I've had in dance. So I did push myself very hard. A lot of it was speculation, I didn't know about the kind of animals I was getting. But now we know the level of accomplishment that was achieved by the singers and musicians in Orfeo and in Luci, and they're ready to try.

I'm very, very allegiant to the music. But I would say when I worked on Bach's Musical Offering, which was the first classical music I worked on, I would talk to him in the studio: "What do you think of this, Mr Bach?" he was a very good collaborator.

But I've come past that now. It's really how can I illuminate certain aspects of this story in a significant way, and I try to do that with as many different layers and levels of signalling.

With Orfeo I even learned the poetry systems, not just the words and narrative but the structure of the poetry - I think I was trying to find out if that structure would be useful to me. This is how I've approached every piece. And I do a prodigious amount of research - I have a quest to find my way in this work, always. And then I have the very great and difficult transposition of taking what I've heard and think  and want to do and bringing it back to modernity. Reading everything I can get, studying the music.


You told me last time we met that when you were a child you spent six years sick, isolated from your family due to this, and I wondered if you'd drawn on that when you worked on Winterreise. Since this boy is so isolated, so convinced he is not part of the world.

I didn't specifically make that link. It's true I was drawn to the sadness in the music, the melancholy of the music, that comes from my childhood - the very beautiful, natural scene, rainforests, spring - that environment does give you an internal portion of yourself which becomes part of your work. But you know, also there's a lot of experimentation, improvisation, trying to get it right - I might get something very clever but it didn't have the right feeling to it. So I would abandon it and try again.

My dancers like the simple choreographies that I make for singers, I call them rudimentary choreographies. I like them too, but I know how to do that. So I have to find something which is the ground-base of the whole work.

You know I've had this with Bach, and I think I've felt it with every monumental piece of music I've worked with. It's a puzzle to figure out. I was reading about the Orfeo - I went back to early Italian literature and pastorales, and I would be crying as I read stories of these shepherds playing their flutes, and someone they would never meet answering their music back to them.  It affected me very deeply and I put so much into it because of it.

But I don't know anything! Because I've come to opera late in my life and only knowing it at the level I know it. I trust myself that I can do this, I can make a theatre piece - but I have no proof until I've done it!

Do you think choreographers hear music quite differently from composers or musicians? A choreographer [Christopher Bruce] once told me he couldn't listen to music on his car radio because he might be so distracted by the dance images that might come that he couldn't drive safely.

Oh really! That's interesting!

I mean that music goes straight from the ear into the brain, and this idea of going outwards into the visual and back again. For instance, I will go to a recital and shut my eyes. Are you put off by work with strong verbal input?

No! My mother was an English teacher, and I had a very great relationship and love of words,  Shakespeare. So yes, we had to spell the word at the breakfast table, pass the T-O-A-S-T. My mother and I played a game about words all our lives, which was how I was able to find she had a weakness of the mind coming on, when she gave me such a stupid word one day. She died, a kind of dementia set in.

I did write more early in my life. If I have time I do write. But to tell the truth, since I did the Orfeo I lost the writing voice. It's like I gained an opera voice, and lost my writing voice. And yes, I do mind that!

That's quite fascinating, that the writing - when you choreographed without words - supplied the extra layer; now you work with words, for the time being that dimension is overtaken.

This is maybe a good suggestion. There is something about "opera" that doesn't lend itself to reflection.

If this can help you - I don't want to give anything away - but I went from gestures that were like secondary language in Orfeo (albeit turned, and not totally literal), through repetitions and cells of repetition in the Sciarrino music for repetitions of the text that were impossible, and I took a form of gesture, sliding in and out between the two endangered lovers, and one was able to get in a kind of nervousness, apprehension, a form for that that showed love and fear simultaneously, that hovered around them, they never touched. It was like a cloud of information about them.

Simon Keenlyside is a trained recitalist and opera singer - and good teaching in Lieder is that you don't move too much...

I was just going to say! Well, I have testimony from many of the singers on Orfeo that the directors often arrive without knowing the music, or what they want you to do - they tell you to get up there. And I said, well, if it's good who gets credit? Singers said, if it's good the director takes credit, if it's bad it's the singers' fault! I felt it absolutely necessary for every dancer to know that score backward, but I had no idea it would garner such respect from the singers that they did. Because they hadn't yet learned the whole score, until they had to. And René Jacobs was just astonished - he said, in the press conference: at last I have as a director someone who actually knows the score.

In other words, there's a big potential for singers who want to move better, and dancers who want to understand the music better - that this area is really not much exploited.

You must understand how I mean this, but divertissement sections in opera are often some of the very worst dancing I've ever seen in my life - and nobody writes about it, but they should. No standard is being exercised at all, and there is so much more that can be done.

Thinking about the centuries when the ballet divertissements were so highly regarded in the operas, the public must have fully expected an equal highlight; dancers fully as engaged and polished as the singers.

But those pieces of choreography have been lost now. so people are making it up now. Great choreographers are on the job, most of the time, but ideally I think one would put together an opera ensemble and train them. Nowadays they are of different nationalities, backgrounds and experiences, and they come together for 10 minutes to work with you.

Jennifer Tipton's doing your lighting - like the poetry/music partnership, lighting and your dance must be partners too?

Absolutely every element in this production is conveying the narrative, and Jennifer is a very powerful partner in that. She knew the music well, she hears it very well, and the text. And she was coming up with ideas and concepts always, there's a structure in her lighting - and this was a very long and demanding project for the lighting, given these short numbers. You will see that it is relevant - if you look there. I didn't look at it fully, at first, I didn't study it, because I was working on mine. But now as we got from city to city, I look at that lighting and I am in love with the lighting! Though don't say that because it will sound silly in the paper!

Do you have a son?

I have one son.

It's an identification of a mother with a teenage son and that music of Winterreise, the new dimension it takes - one's fears for this young man who refuses to believe there is an alternative to despair, that he is determined to finish his days barefoot on the ice. I wonder if having a son is an extra factor that draws you to this piece.

Yes, it's one. Suicide is one of those sidelined tragedies in which people don't have much information. Americans don't deal well with mental illness - there are not easily found support systems for people to talk with each other instead of hiding this secret drama inside. I've thought about it a lot.

Winterreise is such a creation - the way I found it was only because my father loved German lieder, but most people wouldn't happen upon Schubert's Winterreise. And this experience that you're making won't be just for people who already know and as it were protect this piece as theirs, as their own intense experience, but for people who come to dance and don't know the music at all. This isn't a dead 200-year-old thing, this piece of music - this is about you, or me, or anyone at 25.

[Pause.] You put it so well. No one knows better than me just how Schubert doesn't need my dancing on the stage. What a brazen thing to do! but they asked me and I did it the best I could with the most respect.

RIP wild child Trisha Brown