Bodies and Stories at a Memorial to Trisha Brown

On a recent night in Manhattan, a group of New Yorkers, many of them
denizens of the streets below Fourteenth, gathered in a small
auditorium at the Whitney Museum for a memorial in honor of the
pioneering choreographer Trisha Brown. Sitting in the front row was
Steve Paxton, a friend of Brown’s who, in the seventies, developed the
technique of contact improvisation, a structured exploration of
partnering in real time. Farther back sat Mikhail Baryshnikov, who
performed Brown’s “You Can See Us” with her in 1996. The choreographers
Mark Morris and Yvonne Rainer were there, too, as were dozens of former
and present dancers. They had trekked over to the Whitney to mark the
passing of one of their own. Brown died in March of this year, at the age
of eighty, after a slow decline caused by vascular dementia. She had been
forced to retire from her own company, in 2013. It was a sad ending; a body and mind of enormous vitality betrayed by
that very body and mind.

Leah Morrison, a dancer, performed an excerpt from Brown’s 1978 work
“Watermotor.” The choreography unspooled in characteristic ribbons and
eddies of movement. Every action looked natural, spurred by gravity and
momentum as opposed to effort and muscles. Morrison loped, kicked her
legs, bent her torso—as if testing her range of motion—or glided
backward, swishing her feet against the floor. Her arms swung, folded,
and unfolded. The impetus shifted from her arms to her legs, from her
hips to her shoulders. The loosely constructed phrases evoked pleasure,
articulateness, and ease, though the choreography was also clearly
taxing, partly because it involved the whole body, toes to head,
resisting and giving in to gravity. By the end of the short excerpt, Morrison was red in the face and breathing heavily. And there it was,
the essence of Brown’s choreography: everydayness coupled with endless
variation and what the critic Roslyn Sulcas has called “the virtuosity
of coordination and memory.”