When Lisa Kraus danced with the Trish Brown company in the late 1970s and 1980s, she was performing pieces such as “Locus” (1975), a structurally complex concept in which a dancer’s movements are dictated by the edges and vertices of an imaginary cube.
“Very rigorous, in terms of each single movement refer to a point on a cube, slightly larger than a standing figure,” said Kraus, who now teaches dance at Bryn Mawr College. “She was asking for a kind of precision combined an ease of the body, a kind of flow that had not happened in movement before.”
Brown was a pioneer of postmodern dance. Most of her four-decade career was spent deconstructing the fundamentals of movement and performance. She often collaborated with visual artist Robert Rauschenberg; together they conceived of pieces with denied the existence of a stage proscenium (some movements were done in the stage wings, unobserved by the audience) and a solo work in which the dancer never faces the audience.
She even challenged gravity, strapping her dancers in rope harnesses and having them “walk” down the face of a building, their bodies parallel to the ground.
“It twists your whole idea of what’s up, what’ down, what are we looking at,” said Kraus. “It’s playful.”
Brown has received much recognition and many awards for her work, including the Congressional National Medal of the Arts, and the MacArthur “genius” award. When she announced her retirement in 2013, Kraus jumped into action, planning a season-long series of performances, lectures, exhibitions, and workshops of Brown and her work. Perhaps overdue: Kraus notes that Brown’s company has not performed in Philadelphia since 1995.
“In the New Body,” began last weekend at the Barnes Foundation, where the touring company (without Brown) performed her early work in the lobby of the art gallery on the Ben Franklin Parkway. When she started her company in 1970, Brown’s first pieces were designed to be danced in gallery or public settings.
The performance at Bryn Mawr will be one of the company’s last in a theatrical setting. Following Brown’s retirement, the company decided to continue, but only to perform in smaller gallery settings. Essentially, returning Brown to her early roots.
Brown’s late-career work embraced spectacle, using large sets and companies, sometimes collaborating with composer Laurie Anderson. At the end of the “In the New Body” series, the Pennsylvania Ballet will perform “O zlozony / O Composite” (2004), created for the classically trained dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet. It will be the American premiere of that work.
“She was always after a new challenge,” said Kraus, then paraphrased Robert Rauschenberg: “‘I do something until I’m bored, or I understand what it is – which could be the same thing.'”