For the Rolex arts festival at the New York Public Library this week – the crowning event of a year of illustrious arts mentorships – 29-year-old dancer Lee Serle will set up a grid of swivel stools in the grand Beaux-Arts entrance hall for 30 audience members. In his newly minted POV, four dancers will cavort down the corridors between the stools and playfully coax some of the audience off their seats while the rest of us watch from the perimeter or the balcony or the wide staircases.
Serle’s Rolex mentor is the renowned postmodern choreographer Trisha Brown, who likens the rangy Australian to “a long drink of water, as my mother used to say”. Theirs has been a busy partnership. This past year, besides being in on the creation of both a duet and her latest ensemble piece, Serle performed Brown’s site-specific works from the 1970s as part of her company’s 40th anniversary. He loves, he says, the way these pieces situate the viewer within the dance’s frame – whether that be a gallery or a span of Manhattan rooftops – and “the whole casual environment”.
So does half the world, it seems. In the past year, these once-obscure works have been presented at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney in New York, the Barbican in London, the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art and – a real measure of Brown’s field of influence – clandestinely in Tehran. This month, the Pompidou in Paris will join the roll call; last month in the the same city, the Théâtre National de Chaillot presented a Brown world premiere. If that weren’t enough, this week she joined the ranks of Bob Dylan and Ingmar Bergman as a recipient of the Gish Award – for no less than “contributing to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life”.
All of these events and accolades may matter to the rest of us, but as I talk to Serle – and to choreographers Stephen Petronio and Vicky Shick, Brown alums – it becomes clear that what matters to them is not the final work but the slow process of its creation. Petronio’s dances may be as brash and dark as Brown’s are soft and sunny; Shick may take her cues from persona and behaviour as much as from the gravity and momentum that inform Brown’s aesthetic – but Brown’s working method has influenced them deeply.
“Trisha nurtured us with incredible specificity and detail,” says Shick, a member of Brown’s troupe from 1980 until 1986. “Sometimes in rehearsal someone would say, ‘This movement should be three inches over to the left,’ and someone else would say, ‘No, it was five inches up to the right,’ and Trisha never said, ‘Let’s just do it like this.’ She was patient and trusting.”
Petronio joined the ensemble as a “nervous and smitten” 21-year-old, he says, after watching Brown perform her virtuosic three-minute silent solo Water Motor. At that point, his main influence was improvisation guru Steve Paxton and he was convinced that “only through improvising could you get to depth and wit and unusualness. And then I met Trisha.” He danced with her for eight years.
“She was researching a vocabulary, a layering of detail, that opened my eyes,” he says. In rehearsals, after “a lot of laughing and cajoling”, Brown would find something she wanted to explore “and there would be dead silence as we got to work”.
Like Mark Morris and Merce Cunningham, Brown, 74, grew up in Washington state, specifically in Aberdeen, Kurt Cobain’s hometown. When she moved to New York in 1961 she jumped right in to the experimental scene, founding an avant-garde dance collective and inventing the “equipment pieces” that have recently been revisited. Later she collaborated with Robert Rauschenberg on works for the conventional stage, and even, in her own odd way, embraced classical music and opera, with its elaborate theatrical apparatus.
Though she stopped performing a few years ago, she still gets up during rehearsal “to do some outrageous physical thing that triggers a whole set of responses in us”, enthuses Diane Madden, her long-time rehearsal director. Just as often, Serle says, she gives “very specific instructions, then lets things unfold”. She is waiting for something to encapsulate a vision she is yet to have.
How art emerges from accident is always hard to account for. Petronio describes it as “the moment when you memorise the vapour of whatever you were doing”. But Brown does have a reliable starting point: “the basic scaffolding of the body”. Dancers who work with her must develop a keen sense of sequence. “Arm knocks your leg and that makes your hip go and that makes your chin go, and it has to be in that order,” Shick says. “It is like a math proof, but that’s what makes it special – the detail.”
Alongside this rigour is a reticence about extra-choreographic ideas and themes. Petronio recalls: “We might have drinks after rehearsal and talk about an exact shade of blue for the costumes … but never [the dance’s] subject.” Meaning or undertone are off limits. After a rehearsal last week for Rogues, a duet Brown made of Serle and Neal Beasley for New York’s annual Fall for Dance festival, I asked why that title. Because it was simply one of several words that came to mind, she said. Petronio remembers that if he happened to describe a movement as “sexy” (given all that “energy rippling through the body”), “Trisha would roll her eyes. It wasn’t something she wanted to talk about.” Language is loaded; Brown wants the dance to set the terms.
Petronio and Shick are less pure in their approach. Shick, for example, allows herself “little hints of narrative and emotion”, though she sounds apologetic about it, as if the Brown of her youth – the self-described “cold-blooded, abstract, rigorous babe” – were listening. Still, without Brown’s example she is not sure she could “go into a room and know that I will come out with something – in a month or six months”.
What choreographers seem above all to emulate in Brown is her intense attentiveness. A few winters ago I visited her in Hampton Bays on Long Island, where she shares a cottage among the trees with her husband, the artist Burt Barr. She told me how her rose garden had been “tornadoed by bad weather and afterwards I saw a startling thing on one rosebush: a big fat caterpillar that had absolutely mastered the markings on the living leaves. The leaves just sit there and then one of them walks away. That could be theme and variations!” – but only in dances as delicate and alive as her own.
At the Rogues rehearsal, I ask if she ever had a mentor. When she replies with a friendly “No”, I babble something about her forging ahead of the teachers anyway. “Is that what we were doing?” she wonders. But in any case she feels she doesn’t need a mentor now. “I was writing to somebody recently and I said, ‘I’m through with my apprenticeship. I no longer have to teach myself. Now I do what I want to do.’ ”
The Rolex Arts Weekend begins on Thursday, www.rolexartsweekend.com