Trisha Brown, the experimental choreographer who helped bring dance into the art world and whose postmodern pieces altered the history of performance, died on March 18 in San Antonio, Texas, of a “lengthy illness,” the Trisha Brown Dance Company announced today. She was 80.
It would be difficult to overstate Brown’s influence on dance and performance art today. Before she pioneered a branch of art that would come to be known as postmodern dance, she offered artists a new way of thinking about bodies and movement. Her work pondered relations between people, the systems in which they play a part, and the space we all occupy.
Drawing on features of Minimalism, Fluxus, and early performance art, Brown was able to find a language that combined rigorous mathematics and freeform improvisation. Like much of her choreography, her most famous work, Set and Reset (1983), relied on remembered improvisation. She had dancers create their own choreography, then study their own improvisations, and carefully re-perform them so as to make them look natural. When the piece was first performed, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, it immediately met with acclaim.
Brown’s dancers in Set and Reset shimmy, shake, and jump around a set originally conceived by Robert Rauschenberg with music by Laurie Anderson, and it wasn’t unusual for Brown’s work to involve notable art-world collaborators. Among the many others were Donald Judd and Nancy Graves.
From the start of her career, in the early ’70s, Brown was involved with the New York art scene, staging dance works around the city. Her work expanded beyond the confines of the gallery space. Roof Piece (1971) was transpired across various rooftops in SoHo. (Like many early dance and performance works, Roof Piece was filmed, and is sometimes shown in galleries and museums by way of its documentation.)
Brown’s earliest pieces, often performed with dancers who were part of her Trisha Brown Dance Company, which she founded in 1970, relied on the aesthetics of Minimalism. Her “Accumulations” pieces involved mathematical rubrics, beginning with a single gesture, and then, over the course of the piece, gradually adding more and more movements. As the piece is performed, little accidents may happen—even within the strictest of systems, dancers sometimes insert their own choreography.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Brown moved away from dancing in galleries. She began hosting pieces on formal stages, using the theater setting as a way to explore the stage itself. Brown had dancers fling themselves from the wings of the stage, so as to refer to the very systems which guide theatrical performances themselves.
Trisha Brown was born in 1936 in Aberdeen, Washington. She studied at the Mills College Dance Department, from which she graduated in 1958. She came to New York in 1961 and trained there with such experimental choreographers as Anna Halprin and Robert Dunn.
In 1991, Brown became the first woman to receive a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. She also received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, United States Artists, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. In 1988, the French government named her a Chevalier of its Ordre des Arts et Lettres.
Brown’s influence continues to manifest itself in performance pieces by artists around the world, from Ryan McGinley’s manic explorations of bodily behaviors to Maria Hassabi’s institutional critique-inflected performances.
There are parts of Brown’s oeuvre that are still coming to light, likely because her work changed—and continued to change—over the course of her life. “I create an environment that allows my dancers to pitch themselves at an idea,” she told fellow dancer Yvonne Rainer in 1993. “If they do it, I use it or redirect it; if they don’t, I come up with another idea.”