Christine Elmo in response to “Seven Works by Trisha Brown”

Christine Elmo

I often use dance as a tool for understanding the social structures that dominate our lives. Like all mediums, dance reflects the societies we live in.

In a time of dramatic economic and cultural shifts—it feels important, to me, to look at what has come before. The Trisha Brown Dance Company gave me an opportunity to do just that on Wednesday, September 29th at the Whitney Museum of Art, where I watched Seven Works by Trisha Brown be performed.

The entire 2nd floor of the museum was reserved for Trisha Brown’s exhibition. The room was bare white walls and people; no curtains or stage lights to hide anything or anyone.

There were those observing, wearing whatever we left the house in that morning—the audience—and those doing while observing, visa versa—the dancers. These dancers were dressed in identical costumes: charcoal slacks and long sleeve shirts. The assigned uniform accentuated the similarities in the dancers’ bodies and the way they hold their pelvis in relationship to their spine and head. Each dancer owned an openness in their hip sockets that the everyday person does not know exists in their own body.

The show began with Accumulation, 1971, performed by Leah Morrison and Tamara Riewe. The women faced each other, performing the duet in mirror, never missing a step. I was nervous for their need to be perfect in order to execute the, dare I say the word, goal of the piece.

In Walking on the Wall, 1971, the dancers, slipped their bodies into harnesses and did just as the title suggests—walked on the wall, their bodies perpendicular to the wall. The quietness of their steps, alongside the sound of the wheel running through the rail that held their bodies in mid-air was like a pendulum in front of my eyes, hypnotizing me into meditation. I watched thinking I could watch this forever. And then I felt the piece coming to an end and I thought no, please don’t end. My gaze became more focused at this point, as I tried to drink in every movement in hopes to never loose what I was experiencing. And then the piece ended, and I was fine. This sort of process of accepting the end followed me through every piece, and when the show in the gallery was over, I felt satisfied and plump.

Outside of the museum, on the corner of 75th and Madison Avenue, Elizabeth Streb performed the finale, Man Walking Down the Side of a Building, 1971. Streb is not a man, but the original performer of the work was.

At the top of the building she stood, hair styled in a mohawk, coming to a point, tall and at the center of her head. She looked like an action hero. In this work, she walked with a sense of control, mechanically much like a robot, from roof to ground. I could not believe what I was watching and how incredible it felt to see her do what she was doing and to know in my body and brain that what she was doing was dancing—that knowledge feels big in me—to understand that walking down the side of a building is dancing. From my recent years of research and exploration about what dance can be, I’ve come to understand how much dance really is and this new reality has become how I’ve view the world, that everything is dance, but our histories never escape us and in a moment such as Elizabeth Streb walking down the wall, I was confronted once again by my past of almost two decades of experiencing dance as a specific collection of traditional dance techniques that affect and manner your body in a way that prepares you for a very specific and what feels to me, limited kind of performance.

The piece ended. Streb made it back to her feet on the ground, as the way we know the ground. She was safe, sound, and as full of grins as the people watching her. The audience, Upper Eastside afternoon walkers, and taxi drivers who stopped traffic in order to see this heroic event, applauded without end for her achievement.

At this point, people began to discuss, in observation and curiosity, creating a buzz. In my mind I was left with questions, below are a few I am asking:

Returning to my theory that dance is a replication of society and assuming that the work created by Trisha Brown is a society onto itself, what has sexuality experienced because of the work created by Trisha Brown in the 1970s?

What has happened since 1970 to make the work that is being generated today so production-based and less about experimenting, both for Trisha Brown and other choreographers working today?

Or is it that Trisha Brown’s early works demonstrate production in the experiment and that as a society we have lost the value of product through ability to be excessive?

Photo & Thumbnail Photo: John Rowe, "Man Walking Down the Side of the Building" at Tate Museum, 2006