Local dancers reflect on working with iconic choreographer Trisha Brown


Trisha Brown began walking on walls with specially designed equipment and dancing on New York City rooftops in the post-modern 1960s and '70s. Her performances, with the improvisational collective the Grand Union and in the iconic avant-garde venue Judson Church, helped to redefine what dance could be: a pedestrian and task-oriented movement, often based on a set of complicated instructions, often performed in silence.

Just when the dance world thought it had her pegged as an ascetic minimalist, Brown began making sensuous movements that suggested the architecture of, say, a liquefied Weisman Museum: flowing in eccentric and unpredictable ways while maintaining a clarity of design that dazzled the mind and the eye.

She has continued to evolve in the course of her long and distinguished career, working with artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Laurie Anderson. Her rigorous structuring of straightforward movement, her brainy wit, and her experimental forays into everything -- including aerial work, opera, and robotics -- have changed the landscape of contemporary dance.

The iconic artist has now retired, and her company is on its final tour before disbanding. Co-presented by Northrop Dance and the Walker Art Center, where Brown began an ongoing residential relationship in 1974, this final retrospective includes celebrated works like "Set and Reset (1983)" and "Astral Convertible (1989)."

[jump] Brown's connection to the Twin Cities goes deep. Over the past 18 years, several area dancers have worked with her company. City Pages talked to three of them: Elizabeth Garren and Judith Ragir, who joined the company in 1975, and Kevin Kortan, who danced with Brown from 1990 to '96.

Ragir and Garren both studied with Nancy Hauser at the Guild of Performing Arts in Minneapolis in the 1970s. They formed the Harry Martin Trio with Gale Turner, creating site-specific works in lofts and an old house where the three were living. When the HMT disbanded in 1975, Garren and Ragir were invited to join Brown's company in New York.


"I took an improvisational workshop with Trisha in her Soho loft, and later found out it was actually an audition," says Ragir. "I was in the hallway after the last session, waiting for the elevator and just doing a little Judith Ragir-style dancing, which I didn't think fit with Trisha's style. She came up and asked if I wanted to join the company, and mentioned that someone else from Minneapolis was coming to work with her. That someone turned out to be Elizabeth, so there we were, together again."

At the time, Brown was looking for strong, organic movers who could improvise, and who had not developed the mannerisms of a recognizable technique or style (e.g. ballet or Martha Graham or Merce Cunningham). "She wanted relatively clean slates on which to develop a new movement vocabulary," says Garren.

The company in the mid-'70s consisted of five women, including Brown. Many of her dances were based on highly complex structures and concepts. The 1975 work "Locus," for instance, consisted of movement phrases that related very specifically to 26 points on a cube. Each dancer inhabited her own invisible cube, but also had the option of breaking out of her cube and going in and out of unison with others.

"In spite of the rigorous cerebral engagement that 'Locus' demanded, once we learned it, it was luscious to perform," says Garren.

Kevin Kortan joined the company at a different phase of Brown's development. She was beginning to work with music, including J.S. Bach, and the dancing was becoming larger and more technically demanding. Like Garren and Ragir, he appreciated the way Brown, who had studied Alexander Technique, developed an organic way of moving that relied more on the clarity of the bones than the effort of the muscles.

"After dancing in Minneapolis, Boston, and New York with a range of choreographers, I valued movement that wouldn't hurt my body," he says, "and I was drawn by the sheer level of movement invention in her work."

The company was larger than it had been in the days of Garren and Ragir, so in the beginning Kortan learned the repertory from great dancers who had been working with Brown for years. Ironically, in the first dance that Kortan worked on directly with Brown, "For MG: The Movie," she gave him a startling role. He stood perfectly still for the 33-minute duration of the work, with his back to the audience, while the company swirled around him.

"My standing role became the work's centerpiece, yet I was not directly involved. At times, it became an incredible inward inquiry into how I can withstand this. I fainted twice in performance when I was sick," he says. Kortan, who currently studies and teaches evolutionary yoga, views it as a karmic moment of being forced into more inwardness. "Often the audience would roar with applause when I took my bow," he says.

Kortan, Garren, and Ragir are looking forward to seeing the current company perform at the Walker this week. "The experience of dancing with Trisha was very rigorous and intense. The lifestyle felt like you were a nun to dance," says Ragir. "Trisha had such integrity. She never compromised her vision -- criticism or praise didn't change her course."


Trisha Brown Dance Company: Proscenium Works, 1979-2011

8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday


Walker Art Center