Press "Enter" to skip to content

Modern dance icon Trisha Brown displays dance, visual art at exhibit

If you walk into the Art Museum any time between now and March 14, the first thing you see may be Trisha Brown. Her image is projected against a white wall in the museum; it is a video of “If You Couldn’t See Me,” one of her many  performances.

Dancers climb up a wall as part of Trisha Brown's exhibit. (Mika Rosen)

Brown, a dancer and Mills alumna, appears to move across the wall, gesturing and swaying to music that only she can hear. It is just the first of many things to experience in her exhibit, “So That The Audience Does Not Know Whether I Have Stopped Dancing.”

She has on display not just videos of her performances and pieces she has choreographed, but also a large collection of her drawings. The show opened Jan. 20 with a public reception Jan. 27.

Brown is an icon in the world of modern dance. She is a founding member of the Judson Dance Theater, a group of dancers that are credited with the creation of postmodern dance. After forming her own company, Brown was given a 1991 MacArthur Fellowship (also known as the Genius award). Brown’s choreography focuses on everyday movements that are repeated continuously. One of her most memorable pieces is Roof and Fire Piece, which dancers performed on the rooftops of buildings in New York City. Dancers from one rooftop traded off choreography with dancers from other rooftops, transmitting the movement from building to building. The piece is on display at the Museum, and is just one of many pieces where Brown seems to play with the ideas of gravity and physical limits – her pieces have taken place on rafts and on street corners. One even featured a man walking down the side of a building.

Sophomore Alyssa Ilves said she has learned a lot about Brown from the exhibit. “I’m excited that it’s here,” she said. “I think it’s fabulous that Mills is allowing Trisha’s work to be here.”

Brown’s extensive career is showcased in the exhibit, but while it focuses on her dance background, visitors can also see her other passion – visual art. Brown’s drawings cover the walls, many in groups of four or five per theme.

One collection of drawings centers around lines that curve, almost as if they are letters in a foreign language. Another group of drawings features cubes with numbered corners – all using seemingly complicated formulas that relate to the space surrounding the shape and correspond to the alphabet coded with numbers. Her drawings are sometimes simple, sometimes detailed, but always intriguing.

Art Museum Director Stephanie Hanor spoke at the public reception and said that the exhibit is a rare chance to see Brown’s many  artistic talents.

“This is a great opportunity to see her work in all of its forms,” she said. “It’s a beautiful exhibit and a great way for us to learn more about Trisha Brown.”

One of Brown’s pieces, Planes, which she originally created in 1968, was performed twice at the public reception by members of the Mills Repertory Dance Company, divided into two groups. Each group of dancers, six in total, will rotate performances of the piece and will also perform it Feb. 3, 10 and 17 at 7:30 p.m.

What stands out about the piece is that it’s entirely improvised, and the dancers literally climb a wall as they move into one position, pause for a few moments, and move to another position, keeping in mind relation of space, speed and balance between the other women. The wall is covered in holes filled with rubber flaps that allow dancers to stick entire limbs through the space. Think of it almost as a huge game of Twister – but vertical. At one point, a dancer was completely upside-down several feet above everyone’s heads.  The dancers curled into and out of poses, slowly moving their feet and hands back to the safety of the holes. Here is where Brown’s dismissal of gravity comes into play again, but this time it is live.

Throughout the reception, Brown walked around the exhibit and mingled with visitors. At one point in the performance of Planes, Brown moved a chair, placed it in a front row seat behind some audience members, and sat in it, watching the work that she created over 40 years ago being performed.

President Janet Holmgren, who also attended the public reception, said that the night was “a rare opportunity.” Holmgren said that one of the things she has enjoyed the most about her almost 20-year span as president of the College has been getting to know Brown.

“She is the author, the spirit, the mind, the energy of this work,” Holmgren said, gesturing to the pieces around her. “This is a chance to get to know her amazing genius.”