Yesterday, in a second-floor gallery of the Whitney Museum of American Art, people jostled for a prime spot in the semicircle that had formed on the ground, waiting to watch a series of early dances by famed choreographer Trisha Brown. Not daring to speak too loudly, everyone sat patiently, staring from a respectful distance at two almost white walls marked only by faint footprints running parallel to the floor. Then a dancer came out, took a bewildered look at the people seated on the floor, and gestured for everyone to stand up. "The performance will happen around you," she said, smiling.
The audience members obediently stood up and began to mill around the empty room, chatting in small groups. It slowly began to dawn on the crowd, however, that there were interlopers in their midst — barefoot dancers in wide gray pants and long-sleeved shirts. "Uncle John’s Band" suddenly began to play over the PA and two female dancers started to snap their fingers and wiggle their hips in tandem to the Grateful Dead tune. This drove the audience crazy, causing everyone to perk up and run toward the women, a competitive herd with each person attempting to secure the best view.
After this dance, lasting about five minutes, ended, another abruptly began in a different part of the room when pairs of performers crossed the gallery holding hands, their feet pressed together while they precariously leaned away from one another. As the sequence of dances, each only a handful of minutes long, progressed, viewers began to calm down, moving from one dance site to another more gently and fluidly — like the dancers — and arranged themselves so everyone could get a clear view. As once dance would transition into the other, dancers and security guards would caution slow-moving audience members to keep on their toes, lest a dancer fall on them, as in the 1968 piece "Falling Duet 1."
Even the most severe-looking dance devotees began to chuckle at themselves, so swept up were they by their unexpected immersion in the choreography. When one dancer asked "the women" to raise their hands, meaning only to find the other female dancers in the crowd, all of the women in attendance hurried to comply, having learned that swift compliance to to such commands was necessary to avoid having a dancer fall on you. When the mistake was realized, dancers and viewers laughed at what eager students the audience had become.
Each dance was formally stunning, with exceedingly controlled movements and lovely manipulations of gesture both of the everyday variety (like snapping along to the Dead) or entirely strange (as when dancers spun around, affixed to a partner by ropes and boards). Some pieces even set adrenaline pumping — as with the remarkable "Walking on the Wall," first performed at the Whitney in 1971, in which dancers rigged themselves to the ceiling and then strolled or jogged along perpendicular to the walls, crossing over each others' ropes and bumping into each other.
Since 1967, when Brown bored holes into the wall of her SoHo loft to experiment with dancing against gravity, the choreographer has engaged with the themes highlighted in this series of revivals, including a dancer’s interaction with "equipment" and reliance on balance, athleticism, trust, and humor. In 1970, the art-world darling (who collaborated with Donald Judd, Nancy Graves, Elizabeth Murray, and Robert Rauschenberg, to name a few) choreographed a walk down down the face of her home on 80 Wooster Street. As the performances at the Whitney drew to a close, this dance, or vertigo-defying feat, was reenacted by choreographer Stephen Petronio, the first male dance to join Brown’s company.
Petronio wandered down the 75th Street façade of the museum, staying perpendicular to the building and keeping the front of his body parallel to the ground, while Trisha Brown herself, now 73 years old, leaned against a wall across the street, smiling, as she watched "Man Walking Down the Side of a Building," which has not been performed since its premiere in 1970. (Then, the strangely casual walk was taken by Brown's husband at the time, Joseph Schlichter). Tonight and on Sunday, the 60-year-old faux-hawked choreographer Elizabeth Streb will also strap up to take the gravity-defying stroll — the first woman ever to do so.
This program of performances, titled "Seven Works by Trisha Brown," is a part of the Whitney’s — in this case, somewhat ironically named — "Off the Wall: Part 2" series, organized by the museum’s adjunct curator of performing arts Limor Tomer, and runs through October 3.