The 360-degree dancer

Trisha Brown has been cutting a dash in contemporary dance for four decades. On the eve of her UK tour, she shows Sophie Constanti why age need be no barrier to innovation
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The Independent Culture
Last year, the American choreographer Trisha Brown created MO, her first work to classical music, surprising all who had assumed - not unreasonably - that she was neither interested in such a task nor adequately equipped for it. The first eyebrow-raiser was Brown's chosen score - Bach's Musical Offering. Could she really handle a composition that revels in the kind of mathematical complexity likely to scare off most choreographers? And could she ignore the school of thought which asserts that certain pieces of music are untouchable simply because of their stature?

On the surface level, MO appears to offer the palpably fluid, musically detached style of dance by which we tend to identify Brown. But, in looking and listening more closely, you begin to realise that it's a radical departure from the beautifully organised molecular chaos of, say, Set and Reset, Opal Loop or Line Up. In MO, Brown not only tests and proves her own ability to "clear a place for [her] work to exist in relation to [Bach's]", she also challenges her audience to share in her new-found fascination with musical structure.

To British audiences, Brown, now almost 60, is best known for her collaborations with artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Laurie Anderson - both played a significant part in Set and Reset (1983), an enduringly popular piece which, together with If You Couldn't See Me (1994), Brown's first solo for 15 years, and MO (1995), makes up the programme for her company's five-venue British tour. Those who were dance-watching in New York in the Sixties and early Seventies may have witnessed Brown's formative (and now documented) activities with the Judson Dance Theater, that loose collective of movement experimentalists who shared an ambivalence towards the technical virtuosity of much modern dance.

Of course, Brown's dance vocabulary has changed considerably since the era of her so-called "equipment pieces" in which harnessed dancers walked down the walls of Manhattan buildings. But in MO she had to guard against "the kind of dancing one is triggered to do when you listen to Bach's music". Her alternative is a physical response whereby the body seems to create another music "that works with and in counterpoint to the score. And that," she adds, "is a crapshoot, as they say in Las Vegas. You just keep trying things. Retrograde, inversion, reiteration, exploding the theme, answering the canon... It seems to me that there are two basic structures in which dance can work with music: the traditional system of 'music pictures' or the Cage / Cunningham parallel track. But there's also a vast territory between those two things and that's where I looked."

In contrast to the tantalising velocity of much of MO, Brown's latest solo, If You Couldn't See Me (another collaboration with Rauschenberg), is an unhurried, rather minimalist affair in which the choreographer performs with her back to the audience. "I thought at first I'd just make the best solo I could - facing front - and then just turn it around. But on stage it looked like someone secretly knitting; you couldn't see anything. I had to splay the gestures out to the side in order to make them legible. The body is not designed to make dance on its backside. All its communication systems are on the front."

It's five years since Brown's company last visited Britain. But, like Merce Cunningham and Lucinda Childs, she has enjoyed long-term support in France. Since 1973, her company has been a regular attraction at Paris's Festival d'Automne; she has created new works in Montpellier and Angers; and she has given countless residencies and lecture demonstrations. Despite - or perhaps because of - the often cloyingly dense theatrical style of much of their indigenous contemporary dance, the French have turned out to be great admirers of the steadfast purity and undisguised concern with structure in Brown's dances. "From a very early point in my career, the French were open to my work," she says. "They liked it and connected to it. And so they kept inviting me back and supporting me, and we grew together."

While her ties with France haven't led to Brown abandoning New York, they have given her a pertinent context from which to pronounce on America's cultural shortcomings. Interviewed in the European recently, she claimed that her positive experiences in France have made her even more aware of "the total disrespect for the arts in the US, where culture and education are not considered as essential elements of civilisation." She believes that the arts are just a pawn in the power games played by politicians. "It has nothing to do with being against the arts." But doesn't it have something to do with an appetite for censorship? "Well, yes," Brown concurs. "I think that if you talk about pornography and art you get votes from a large section of people. But when those people find out they're being manipulated and stop responding, the arts will be back. How can [Pat] Buchanan say 'I am going to run for President and the first thing I'm going to do is get rid of the National Endowment for the Arts'? Now does that sound like a statesman's priority or a political manipulation?"

As a lobbyist for the arts, Brown encountered cynical disregard for policies based on proper information, discussion and analysis. Political ambition nearly always gets in the way, so what you're likely to hear, Brown says, is something along the lines of, "I can't vote for the arts because if I do, I'll get a thousand letters from the religious right and they'll take ads out in the newspaper and call me a pornographer."

One of the most apposite and salutary products of the mutually rewarding relationship between Brown and France was For MG: The Movie. The initials in the title are those of French Minister of Culture, Michel Guy, who was instrumental in bringing Brown's company to Paris in the early Seventies, and who died of Aids before the dance's completion in 1991. During the 18 months before his death, Guy called a number of carte blanche meetings. Although these took place at his office, they were not, Brown explains, business meetings. "He'd say 'Come any time, don't bring anyone with you,' and we'd talk about dance, art..." At the time, Brown knew nothing of Guy's illness. In retrospect, she believes that "he was reviewing his life and his career as an entrepreneur". The subject of For MG: The Movie is, Brown says, enigma. It is a dance in which time seems to roll back, stand still or shift into the future. Brown did not want the audience to notice dancers entering the space, so she created a series of commotions in order to distract the eye.

At the heart of the work is a solitary figure (originally Diane Madden) who jogs in figure-eight floor patterns to Alvin Curran's Satiesque score of limpid, repeated fragments. Brown based the stop-start quality of Madden's phrases on the dancer's experience of running down a mountain. And, like the music, the dance frequently breaks off in mid-sentence, only to hang in the air before reactivating and retracing itself. Of the dancers in Brown's current line-up only Madden will be familiar to British audiences. Her one-time contemporaries, like Stephen Petronio, Lance Gries, Randy Warshaw and Eva Karczag - upon whom works such as Newark and Set and Reset were forged - have long departed. But Brown has repopulated her company with a clutch of able and charismatic performers. She has also entered a new phase in her own dancing - now more voluptuous, sure-footed and authoritative than ever - at an age when, as she herself points out, "you might think I'd be exiting rather than entering one. But I have so much more conscious knowledge of what I'm doing. My body's polyphonic - a one- man orchestra, a 360-degree dancer - and my mind is just exhilarated by the possibilities."

Trisha Brown Company perform 'MO', 'If You Couldn't See Me' and 'Set and Reset' tonight/ Sat, Brighton Theatre Royal (01273 328 488); 21 May, Edinburgh Festival Theatre (0131-529 6000); 24/25 May, QEH, London (0171- 960 4242); 28/29 May, Newcastle Theatre Royal (0191-232 2061); 3/4 June, Blackpool Grand (01253 28372)