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Archive of choreographer's creative process finds a home
In a photo provided by Boyd Hagen, Trisha Brown, right, and Carol Goodden in “Leaning Duets II” (1971). The New York Public Library has acquired Brown’s archive, including 1,200 videotapes that provide an invaluable record of her creative process. Boyd Hagen via The New York Times.

by Siobhan Burke

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In a video recorded in 1989, choreographer Trisha Brown demonstrates a few restless seconds of movement as dancers in her studio try to follow along. An arm darts across the torso; the legs appear to slip and catch themselves. It happens fast. As the dancers attempt to do as she does, a viewer can imagine how useful the video would be for anyone learning this material. There’s no easy way to explain what she’s doing; you just have to keep watching.

In her decades of dazzling experiments with the body, gravity and momentum, Brown invented movement so complex — so capricious yet precise — it could be hard to remember from one day to the next, let alone years later if the work were to live on. As if to keep tabs on her discoveries, the camera became a regular presence in her studio, a tool as pragmatic as her choreography was wild. By recording the building of a dance, she could revisit what had rushed forth in a solo improvisation or retrace how a group of dancers had achieved an improbable lift.

“Her movement is so sequential, and there’s a whole logic for how it spills through the body,” said Cori Olinghouse, a former dancer with Brown’s company, who served as its archive director from 2009 to 2018. “I think recording it was a way to try to recover something of that logic when nobody could remember.”

Over the years, thousands of hours of rehearsal footage accumulated in Brown’s archive, most of which make up 1,200 videotapes known as the Building Tapes. These invaluable records of her creative process, long used almost solely by the Trisha Brown Dance Company, are now poised to become available to a much broader public. After an extensive search for the right home, the company is placing its founder’s archive — including the Building Tapes and corresponding notebooks, known as the Building Notebooks — at the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Barbara Dufty, the company’s executive director, said Brown, who died in 2017 at 80, had hoped for her archive to be widely accessible. “She wanted to feel like what was there from her legacy, and the record of her creating her work, was offered freely for people to look at,” Dufty said.

The company considered more than 20 potential sites for the archive before narrowing the options to four. On its long list of criteria was geographic location. Brown grew up in the Pacific Northwest but established her career in New York, part of the fertile downtown scene that gave rise to postmodern dance in the 1960s. In some of her early works, the city itself was her stage: She sent a man walking down the side of a building in “Man Walking Down the Side of a Building” (1970) and stationed dancers across a network of SoHo rooftops in “Roof Piece” (1971).

“Trisha was a New York girl,” Dufty said, so it seemed fitting that her archive not travel too far.

Home to the world’s largest dance collection, the performing arts library holds the archives of other artists in Brown’s milieu, including David Gordon, Deborah Hay and Elaine Summers, who, like her, were founders of the 1960s collective Judson Dance Theater. But Linda Murray, curator of the Dance Division, said Brown’s archive stands apart for its sheer volume of rehearsal footage, paired with the abundant rehearsal notes that fill the Building Notebooks.

“When you take those two elements together, you have this incredibly complete picture of the choreographer’s intent,” Murray said.

Dance researchers, she explained, often go to great lengths to piece together clues about the thinking and editing behind a finished work. “What’s so beautiful about the Brown archive is we have a clear path from inception point to completion point. It’s really, really rare to see that in an archive,” Murray said.

The items going to the library, which date back to 1966, include photographs, slides, lighting plans, music scores, correspondence, financial records and Brown’s personal notebooks, among other personal and institutional materials.

Brown had a way with words, and some of these documents bristle with her love for language — and punctuation. In a letter to her collaborator Robert Rauschenberg, a jumble of exclamation points leaps off the page. In a 1973 notebook entry, she has etched the phrase “4 thyroids performing a theory” below her drawings of as many stick figures.

Because of its limited exhibition space, the library will not acquire Brown’s costumes and sets, some of which were designed by venerable artists like Rauschenberg and Donald Judd. Dufty said the company was in conversation with museums about housing and displaying these pieces. (Although most famous as a choreographer, Brown was also a visual artist, known for her drawings. New York gallery Sikkema Jenkins & Co. manages those works.)

The archive’s audiovisual material has been meticulously organized in a database — practically an artwork in itself — created by Olinghouse in collaboration with choreographer David Thomson, who is also a former member of Brown’s company. By allowing users to view the same dance — or specific sections of a dance — at different stages of development, the database invites exploration of Brown’s choreographic process, not just her completed works.

Olinghouse said she wanted the archive, even while highly ordered, to reflect “the wildness” of Brown’s spirit and to impart “something of that felt sense of the work itself.” While some dance archives emphasize finished products, she tried to resist this approach.

“I really wanted it to be messier and more contrarian and more alive and haptic, because that was the way Trisha worked,” she said. “I wanted it to center around an artist’s creative practice.”

To decipher some of the more cryptic aspects of the archive, Olinghouse turned to Carolyn Lucas, the company’s associate artistic director, who was instrumental in documenting Brown’s work. Lucas joined the company as a dancer in 1984, but after a serious injury in the mid-1990s, she shifted into the role of choreographic assistant, responsible for videotaping rehearsals, taking notes and later editing both the tapes and the notes for more efficient use. It was out of this process that the bulk of the Building Tapes and Building Notebooks emerged.

Looking through the tapes (most of which were recently digitized through a Mellon Foundation grant), Lucas has been struck by just how much movement Brown generated, often through improvisation — and how much she discarded.

“There’s so much that’s been recorded that Trisha did not use in the choreographies, but it’s gorgeous material,” she said. “Not everybody goes into a studio and keeps what they make, but Trisha really threw out tons. She danced so much until she found the groove that she wanted to be in.”

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the final stages of the acquisition process have taken longer than planned. Dufty said that about half of the archive has been delivered to the library; she hopes the rest will arrive by the end of 2020. After that, by Murray’s estimate, it could take up to three years to process the collection for public access.

In the meantime, the archive remains essential to the company’s work, which hasn’t stopped in the wake of Brown’s death. Lucas described the excitement of unearthing, a few years ago, documentation of “Ballet,” a 1968 solo that Brown performed only once, in which she traversed a tightrope in a pink tutu. A reconstruction of the long-lost piece opened the company’s 2018 season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with Cecily Campbell in Brown’s adventurous role.

More recently, the company has been celebrating its 50th anniversary online, streaming past performances and rehearsals while devising new interactive digital projects. From Sept. 21 to 26, followers of @trishabrowncompany on Instagram will be invited to create and post their own sections of “Solo Olos,” a dance from 1976, based on a given set of instructions.

When the archive is, at last, publicly available, researchers may find themselves pleasantly inundated with new ways of understanding Brown’s work, even those already well acquainted with her choreography. Olinghouse, for example, was introduced through the archive to Brown’s writings.

“I suddenly was learning about her writing style, her sense of poetics, her wit, her humor,” she said. “It gave me a very different window into her as a maker.”

In one notebook entry from the 1970s, Brown observes her own inclination to erase or erode what she has made. “When I first started choreographing in NYC,” she writes, “I had the habit of reducing what I was doing down to the bare bone. The trouble with this practice is that when I went into the studio to work, I came out with much less than what I started with.” She stopped working on one three-minute dance “just before it disappeared altogether.” Lucky for us, she kept on making, and she held on to a lot.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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