In September Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts made a modern dance legend into an immediate presence by inviting the Trisha Brown Dance Company for a week-long residency. Brown was a founding member of the revolutionary Judson Church Dance Theater, which sent modern dance along a new trajectory more than 40 years ago. Considered radical in the 1960s, the Judson philosophy accepted every movement as dance and elevated contact improvisation to an essential artistic tool.
The Brown residency at Mason Gross included a lecture-demonstration by Brown herself, master classes on technique taught by two members of Brown’s company, and a performance by the company of three pieces choreographed by Brown.
Since then a group of six junior and senior dance majors has been preparing excerpts from "Line Up," an early Brown work (1976), for inclusion in the Dance Plus fall concert at the New Theater on the Douglass College campus, Friday through Sunday, December 2 through 4. They have been rehearsing under the benevolent tutelage of Vicky Shick, who danced with Brown and teaches at the Trisha Brown Studio in New York City.
The performers are Megan Hebert, Sara Murphy, Dana Prieto, Blair Ritchie, and Daniela Tomasiello. Understudy Rebecca Duschl acts as Shick’s assistant and, in addition, must master all parts of the "Line Up" excerpts in order to be able to step in, if necessary.
Choreographer Trisha Brown trained at Mills College. Now in her late 60s, she was in her 20s when the experimental Judson Church Dance Company began its groundbreaking work in 1962. Branching out, Brown established her own company in 1970 and found herself recognized as a brainy choreographer, whose works had a notable organic integrity. Her company performed at first in alternative spaces in New York’s Soho, and now basks in appearances at opera houses and theaters throughout the world.
Brown’s openness and flexibility infused her lecture-demonstration at Mason Gross earlier this fall: "I’m always chasing down new dance vocabulary. My choreography is porous. Each piece has a life of its own. I’m not interested in perfection; I want people to adapt the movements to their own body, not to copy mine. The body is malleable. It uses its own energy and sustains itself." In answer to a question about how she choreographs, Brown says, "I do everything that works."
Brown does not distinguish between male and female roles in her dances. "I’m interested in testing out the strength of women, not just making them a Christmas present that men give to each other. I take my imagination off its leash and have women lie on the ground, and support weights with their legs, which are very powerful. I use cantilevered positions."
In Brown’s ensemble the meshing of movement is vital, rather than static. Rather than counting, dancers find their motivation in the timing of their colleagues, which Brown calls "rhythmization."
Those who work with Brown have a visceral reaction to the exposure. Jeff Friedman of the Mason Gross dance department says, "I took a workshop in the 1980s with Trisha, and I remember that doing her movement caused my body to feel intelligent, beautiful, and healthy."
Vicky Shick, who is coaching the Mason Gross dancers, was a member of the Trisha Brown Dance Company from 1980 to 1986 and, in a telephone interview from her home in New York City, provides an insider’s grasp of how to master Brown’s choreography. "The most important thing in doing Trisha’s work is understanding the alignment of your own body. Even if a movement might look familiar, you use your muscles in a different way.
"Trisha wants a simple, natural approach to the body," Shick continues. "She wants to avoid the fake regal posture of bad ballet. You approach things that look familiar, but experience them physically in a special way. When the weight of your leg drops, it makes the opposite hip go up, and that movement then transfers to the ribs, and then the armpits, and then the shoulders. There’s a domino effect. Things get set in motion. You initiate the motion, and the rest of the body gets a ride.
"The whole thing is brainy," Shick says. "It’s movement where everything is physical coordination with an inner logic. You can’t do anything by rote. Having danced for many years, I still find it mentally challenging. It’s like a coordination test."
Shick, 54, was exposed to dance instruction for about a week in her native Budapest, Hungary, before the family left for the United States in 1956. She studied ballet as a child in the United States and attended the American Ballet Theater School. "I realized that I would never be ballet dancer," she says, "because I didn’t have the right body; I was too big. But I was persistent, even though I was very shy, and I loved dancing.
"After I decided that there was no career for me in ballet, I did general modern dancing, jumping around from school to school," Shick says. "I was going to quit dance, when I saw Trisha perform. I fell in love with her work and wrote her a letter. A couple of years later, in 1977, I got a post card saying that since I liked her work I might like to come to an audition. It was an old postcard announcing a performance, with the announcement crossed out. I made it to the call back, but didn’t get in. I auditioned again in 1980 and got in.
"When I was in the company, I was lucky," Shick says. "There were seven of us and Trisha was in every piece. We warmed up together, and went on the road together. She was in her 40s and struggling to keep the integrity of her movement. At rehearsal she would do something 15 times until she got it exactly right. I never experienced such devotion and patience. In six years she never got mad. It was the opposite of the Russian ballet training that I grew up with, where you were terrified of your teachers.
"Trisha worked by herself before rehearsal, taught us the choreography, and then refined it with the dancers. Sometimes she would work individually with people and would experiment with your body. She would describe an image and you would try to embody it. She was no longer the only person inventing the movement."
When she was 34 Shick left the Brown company. "There was a lot of traveling," she says, "and I thought I was not a youngster. I wanted to stay in one place because of a relationship I had." The relationship continues. Shick and her then partner, now her husband, Alan, who runs the mentoring program for Empire State College in New York, are the parents of Jonah, 19, a freshman at Brandeis College.
Currently Shick, who has done her own choreography, teaches in New York City for Movement Research, Hunter College, and Fordham University, in addition to the Trisha Brown Studio. Working with the Mason Gross students in rehearsal, she has clearly adopted Brown’s kindly style. She maintains an open, non-authoritarian atmosphere. Her primary teaching mechanism is praise. She makes suggestions about small details that are almost imperceptible. Yet, over the course of the rehearsal session, an observer sees that the dancing gains in authority. Her gentle style contrasts with the geometric, often angular movements that she is shaping.
Perhaps her warm approach grows from the heartfelt respect that she has for the students. "These students are smart, enthusiastic young women," Shick says. "Some people don’t know that these dances are difficult. But they knew it was challenging and enjoyed the challenge. They figure things out on their own. They’re crazy perfectionists. They’re meticulous. They take the initiative. They’re the hardest-working, most involved, most engaged people I have ever worked with."
Watching rehearsals gives one an X-ray view of the three excerpts from Brown’s "Line Up" to be performed in the Dance Plus concert. All three have strong improvisational content. "Clackers" is an honest running race with idiosyncratic rules: At the sound of a bleep each of the participants takes one step and then returns to the starting line; at bleep two each takes two steps; at bleep three, three, and so forth. Dancers who fail to return to the start when the next bleep sounds are eliminated.
"Solo Olos" is a palindrome where dancers reverse their movement when the caller, in this case, understudy Rebecca Duschl, calls on them randomly to do backwards what they just have done forwards. Shick considers "Solo Olos" the most difficult part of the piece. "The act of reversing something spontaneously has unexpected nuances. If you’re screwing a bottle open and pouring its contents into jar, reversing the movement is like a movie run backwards. Your wrist has to move in the opposite direction. It’s not just screwing the lid on again."
In "The Spanish Dance," the only segment done with music, each dancer is set in motion by contact with a previously moving dancer.
The Dance Plus program also includes work by Mason Gross choreographers: Randy James’ "Blue Diamond Sue," written originally for his New York performing company, and his surreal "Flying Lobsters"; John Evans’ "Red Hair Is Better"; and Christian von Howard’s "The Deconstruction of a Classical Theme."
The program repeats as part of "Danceworks," the 14-week outreach series through which the Mason Gross school takes shows to performing arts high schools, universities, senior centers, and prisons in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. Mason Gross dance faculty member. By incorporating Trisha Brown’s work into the outreach performances director Randy James spreads her presence geographically beyond the scope of the single week of the September residency in New Brunswick.
Dance Plus Fall, Friday and Saturday, December 2 and 3, 8 p.m.; Sunday, December 4, 2 p.m., Mason Gross School of the Arts, New Theater, New Brunswick. Includes excerpts from "Line Up" by Trisha Brown and pieces by Mason Gross choreographers. $20. 732-932-7511.