Since Trisha Brown's retirement in 2013, Associate Artistic Directors Diane Madden and Carolyn Lucas have taken over the leadership of the preeminent dance company that Brown founded in 1970 as an offshoot of Judson Dance Theater. Both longtime Company dancers themselves, Madden and Lucas act as stewards of Brown's sizable body of work and teachers of her ideas to new generations of dancers, professional and otherwise. Over the past several decades, the dance world has witnessed the Graham and Cunningham troupes devise two diverging solutions to the dilemma faced by single choreographer dance companies when they are no longer presenting new work. Today, many Brown devotees are curious about the Trisha Brown Dance Company’s plan for preserving her extensive archive of choreography, improvisational scores, writings, and visual art. Recently, I was able to speak with Madden about her extensive experience alongside one of the most influential dance-makers in the history of the field. In the true spirit of Brownian curiosity and research, we discussed her personal history with the company, the power of quality dance education, and our perspectives on Brown’s enduring legacy in the cannon of contemporary dance.
— Meg Weeks
Meg Weeks: First of all, I would love for you to tell me a little bit about your personal history with the company and with Trisha herself.
Diane Madden: Let’s see. My personal history with the company…. First, I saw a Trisha Brown Company performance at the Public [Theater} in the late ‘70s. I don’t know the year. I remember that performance completely blowing open my understanding of what a dance could be and writing in my journal, describing certain things and making little drawings of what I saw. I pasted the program into my journal, so if I dig that journal out I could remember all the specifics. And then I read about Trisha in Terpsichore In Sneakers.
I was a student at Hampshire College and really into improvisation and contact improvisation at the time. Steve Paxton was around, also Lisa Nelson, Nancy Stark Smith and I studied with Danny Lepkoff. That’s where I met Randy [Warshaw] and Stephen [Petronio]. We were all working with this one teacher there [Eleanor Huston] who had a big impact on us. One spring break [March 20-22, 1980], Trisha and the Company taught a workshop at Tufts University. So we all went and once again Trisha rearranged my understanding of what made a dance a dance. She taught an improvisation/composition class. By this time in Trisha’s career she wasn’t teaching so much so it was a pretty special experience to take the class. I was just completely blown away by it. One thing that I remember from that class is that she gave an improvisation exercise to use your body as if it is a piece of paper, to fold and crumple and do all the things you can do with paper. And I remember that one of the students asked, “what do you do with your head?” And she said, “you don’t have a head, you’re a piece of paper.” Obviously! That is such a good answer because you have to stop thinking! Or rather not let your thinking get in the way. So after the workshop I wrote her a letter and put it in the mail. The letter said “I will do anything for you. Where do I sign up?” And she wrote me back. I still have the letter. She said, “that’s wonderful, that’s the best kind of support anyone can offer. And as a matter of fact, we’re having auditions. Please get in touch with Lisa Kraus, she’s organizing the auditions.” The audition was in April. I was in my third year at Hampshire, and for various reasons, I had kind of run dry. I think the Five College Dance Department is a really great place, but personally, I had run dry and was so ready to be directed by somebody. So I went to New York, auditioned, got the job and dropped out. I was 21 years old. I thought that I would continue to work remotely to finish getting my degree, but once I moved to New York I was so completely consumed by it all.
MW: Did you ever go back and finish?
DM: No. I’m a dropout.
DM: Well, it’s a bit of an issue. About fifteen years ago I was up at Hampshire teaching a January term and looked into what it would take to finish getting my degree and at that time I thought it was too much time and too much money and I decided that I couldn’t do it.
MW: So what year was it that you joined the company?
Opal Loop, 1980. Dancers: Lisa Kraus, Trisha Brown, Stephen Petronio. Photo by Harry Shunk
DM: 1980. I got the job right when the Company was premiering Opal Loop [June 10, 1980] on Crosby Street in this amazing space with Fujiko [Nakaya’s] fog sculpture. I remember sitting in the audience for that premiere.
MW: Had you already started rehearsing with them?
DM: No, because I wanted to finish out the school year. Anyway, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I started rehearsing in July up at Jacob’s Pillow, which was a nice place to start. And then I came to New York and Trisha was away; I imagine that she was visiting her family in the Pacific Northwest. She let me stay in her loft until I figured out where I was going to live.
MW: So, having written to her and saying that you would do anything for her, does that resonate differently now that you have made it your career? Did you imagine going on to play a role like the one you’re playing now?
DM: No, I don’t think I did. Although, the fact that I remember writing that, and from where I’m sitting now, I think that on some level I must have known something. I do remember early on working with the company, maybe within the first year, people asking me, “so when are you going to start doing your own work?” And I was like “well I kind of have a lot going on here right now. I am kind of busy.”
MW: Was that expected of dancers then? That they would make their own work?
Newark, 1987. Dancers: Lance Gries and Diane Madden. Photo by Jack Mitchell
DM: I think it was at the time. Everyone was always making things. And it’s not that I didn’t and haven’t made my own work. Your question makes me realize that at that time, I did have some sense of the scope of the greater context that I was in. I knew I had to see it through for a while. Then at a certain point relatively early, when I was involved in the creation of Newark , I remember feeling the weight of that daily process of going to rehearsal and knowing that if I didn’t love what I made that day, that was going to really suck because I’m going to be doing it for a long time. I’d have to come back to it over and over again and really love it. It’s got to be good. That means to be challenged by it, not be bored by it, and not have it drive me into the ground. So that really upped the ante, going into the studio everyday and being ready to make something that you want to stick with for the long haul.
MW: Right, because you had ownership in what you were doing.
DM: Yes, that’s what Trisha created. She created the space for you to have ownership.
MW: You performed with the company from 1980 until—?
DM: I’m still performing with them.
MW: So when did you move into a leadership role?
DM: Well, in 1984, Trisha asked me to be her first rehearsal director. It coincided with her stepping out of the choreographic process as a dancer to generate movement and composing from the outside. I don’t know if it was related to that, but I suspect that it was. I wasn’t aware at the time, but when I look back on it I realize that there probably was a reason why, in terms of her own choreographic process, she would want to have someone else be the keeper of the material. So that conversation went something like this, “I’d like for you to be my rehearsal director. It will involve helping me do the scheduling and maintaining the work.” I can’t even remember exactly what she said a rehearsal director did. But of course I was really honored and humbled by the proposition and at the same time–I don’t know if I said it or if she said it–but there was some concern over whether it would interfere with my focus on my own dancing. So what was proposed by her was to give it a try and that we could always revisit the decision and change our minds. But we never talked about it again. It certainly did have an impact on my ability to focus 100% on my dancing, and it still does. But I guess it’s a sacrifice that I was willing to make.
That job has just continued to grow. It’s never become static. As Trisha continued to grow and expand and try different things, I needed to also. I never got bored, either as a dancer or rehearsal director. And that continues up to this day. I did spend ten years in a more part-time position so that I could raise my son. During that time period, I still did a lot of projects with and for the Company, a lot of reconstructions. But then in 2010, I came back in as rehearsal director and then in 2013, Trisha retired and she had identified Carolyn and me as the people she wanted to continue to lead the company and here I am.
MW: That’s quite a story. Shifting gears a little bit, I wanted to talk a little about the Company’s education program and how that fits into its broader mission and other efforts to perpetuate Trisha’s legacy in contemporary dance education.
DM: It’s a hugely hot topic. I cannot tell you how much, even in the last month, interest has exploded in the company’s education. It’s probably due to an awareness of Trisha’s retirement and there not being more new choreography. Personally, education is a very big part of where I see the future of Trisha’s work. In terms of her legacy, it’s key to find the right way to share her ideas in order to be integrated into artists’ processes for the purposes of creating new work. It’s not so much solely to keep her work alive just as she made it, but to take the essential component ideas and give them life and move forward. Keeping her dances alive as she made them is only one way of doing that. The experience of reconstructing a Trisha Brown choreography, especially the way the Trisha Brown Company does it, is immensely valuable and informative and can provide many tools and experiences that one can take into their own process, whether as a performer or as a choreographer. In general, in the spectrum of things, I’m more on the end of being open, wanting to be as open as possible with Trisha’s ideas.
MW: Like open source choreography? That idea appeals to me.
DM: Yes. We can’t control an idea; if someone is inspired by something, then that’s that.
MW: Right, there are no strict plagiarism conventions in dance.
DM: I think the only way I know how to control it is by sharing it, by letting the world know that if you want to know about Trisha’s work, then come to us. We’ll share it with you most deeply and accurately.
MW: That is something I’m interested in, striking a balance between preservation, maintaining the integrity of her ideas, but also, especially as the company continues to perform her work, keeping those ideas alive and personally relevant to each of the performers who weren’t necessarily involved in the first iteration of the pieces themselves. I get the sense that it is a lot of your job.
DM: Exactly. That is the job. Because I’ve had to, I’ve evolved in my relationship to it and my success doing it. And it’s not over; I’m still figuring it out. I’m still learning how to do it. With certain dancers, the ones who have been around for a long time, I’ve gotten to the point that I can joke with them about my evolution. I’m not as strict as I used to be. I’m not as on top of them as I used to be when I was a less mature director. Now I’m more willing to give them space and be secure in that and not panic. It has to do with me understanding the work more deeply. Now I understand what’s really essential and what are the things that don’t matter, the things you can take away and still have the essence of the work. I also understand what things, when added, will obscure the work. Over time, I’ve gotten a better sense of that, a better feel.
MW: So you are in charge of sort of distilling the main principles of the work for the dancers?
MW: What kind of room does the work have for new people to inhabit it?
Present Tense (restaging rehearsal), 2014. Dancers: Stuart Shugg, Jamie Scott, Cecily Campbell. Photo by Martita Abril
DM: I think it has a lot; it has a ton of room, especially how I direct it now compared to how I used to direct it. There’s a lot more room. I’ve evolved toward seeing the artist in every dancer, inviting that and embracing that. When I watch the dancers now, I feel our collaboration has most succeeded when I see them and I see the original cast member. It’s possible to see both actually, and it’s very clear to me when it’s there and it’s very exciting. So for instance, I can see Jamie, and I can see Trisha at the same time, and both are true and can be inhabited in one person. The nuts and bolts of how to get there, well that’s a lot more involved. I have a strong foundation in technique, in a physical approach that lends itself to Trisha’s aesthetic. I really believe that they are intertwined, so I am a stickler for that in rehearsal. There are certain physical realities that should be present and alive in the movement. Those physical realities, as precise as they can be, are also there to allow for a greater degree of individuality. Those two things don’t negate one other. I’ve learned that over the course of many years.
MW: I took the Company’s intensive with Eva Karczag this winter and she talked a lot about that, about being able to embody a specific physical idea that is actually very freeing. Mastering a certain way of moving gets you to a plane where you can access new things.
DM: The one thing that is so present in Trisha’s own dancing is that she moved from a sense of her skeleton. Something I learned from all my years studying Klein is that bone is the deepest, densest part of you. It holds your individuality. There is something that I really feel, experience, and observe when an awareness of one’s skeleton is present in their movement. I see the uniqueness of that person.
MW: That’s interesting because in a certain sense, in a sort of strict medical, anatomical sense, we all have identical bodies, but in another sense, that’s not true at all. Our histories are all different, and they live in our bodies.
DM: Susan [Klein] says, and this is digging back in my memory so it may not be completely accurate, that your bone is what you are born with, and your musculature holds your history. That’s where you carry what you’ve learned, what happened to you; it’s registered more in your musculature.
MW: I like that.
DM: Yes, that’s one of the things I took with me from studying Klein technique.
MW: So talking about moving forward with Trisha’s work, what measures have been taken to preserve her work, and how is that incorporated into the Company’s practice?
DM: Well, I think that the trickiest thing is the current economic reality, that it is very hard to keep a touring dance company with a single choreographer sustained financially. That’s just a given. That, combined with no longer having new work to sell, makes for the whole structure by which the company has been surviving much less tenable. So we have to adapt. And that’s the name of game as far as Trisha’s concerned. She was an expert at that. We have been carefully considering all of our options, knowing that it was Trisha’s expressed wish for the Company to continue doing her work for as long as we could. She wanted her work to continue to be performed. She wanted her work to find an educational home in the US, and she wanted the archive to be preserved, well taken care of, put into a format and have a home from which it can be shared. She didn’t want it to be buried somewhere; it has to have a life. So the education piece and the archive piece are a given. It’s not necessarily a given finding the funding, but it’s our task to figure that out.
The piece that’s hard is the performance piece. Really looking at all of our options, it doesn’t make sense for us to shut down that piece yet. We’ve had this very organic evolution of a programming idea that’s been a long time coming, and it’s arriving just when we need it, which is to continue to develop the site-specific aspect of Trisha’s work. I’m talking about not just the early works, which are the ones that were originally done in non-proscenium spaces before anyone knew what site-specific meant. But there is this huge amount of work that was originally created for the proscenium stage but that doesn’t necessarily have to be tied to it. So it gives us a lot of room to play and create, which is essential if you’re doing Trisha’s work . In a way, even if we could sustain ourselves doing the same exquisite repertory pieces over and over, we wouldn’t want to; it wouldn’t be true to her work. So we have this new programming idea that we had already been doing under Trisha’ eyes starting years ago, and we’ve just continued to develop it. It’s been a big success and a really beautiful thing. Trisha went into the theater because she wanted to reach a different audience. And now we’re leaving the theater because we want to reach a different audience, for many of the same reasons. We want to reach beyond a dance audience, to a broader audience, in terms of age and accessibility We want to bring her work to public spaces, to the public, , and not only theater-goers. It all fell together and makes a lot of sense.
MW: It seems like things were already in place to go in that direction.
DM: Yes, and the dancers love it. If the dancers aren’t happy, there’s no point in doing anything as far as I’m concerned. I have so much respect for them as artists that I feel it’s my job to keep them really engaged and challenged. So that’s what I’m going to do.
MW: I’m interested in the transmission of performance and choreography as an oral tradition but I’m curious about other methods of archiving her work. I know that Trisha was also a visual artist. Is there a tool kit for cataloguing her work in addition to teaching the choreography to new generations of dancers?
DM: Good question! I’ll say the obvious thing that unfortunately is not always so obvious. The work is kept in the body, in the person, in the mind and body of the person dancing it. That’s where it is best archived. It’s a living art form ultimately, it’s a performance art, and that’s why education is so important, passing it on body to body. At this point, I don’t want to be precious, but it is precious. The value of the information is so great that anytime anyone is teaching anything, get as many people there as you can to learn it. That keeps it alive.
MW: The body as an archive is imperfect; there’s human error, and there are memory discrepancies. It presents its own set of challenges, but it is uniquely wonderful in the sense that dance is an ephemeral form and that’s the best way to keep it alive. Recordings are obviously necessary for documentation purposes but that oral and physical transmission of ideas seems like the most appropriate way to do it.
DM: Yeah I think the best medium to transfer information is by watching a body being present three dimensionally in the room, hearing the breath and the footfalls, feeling the touch. And hearing the thought or intention behind it. So much of what I find really challenging about keeping work alive over many years is how to get inside the heads of the people who did it originally, to access what they were thinking. By understanding why they did what they did you have the essence and tools to keep it alive it is faulty; memories are faulty. But given all of that, I think it’s still the best way to transfer the information. And it’s a real circuitous, ongoing process.
As an example, Opal Loop was made in 1980. First, I learned Stephen Petronio’s role from him sometime in the ‘80s. In ‘96 we did a reconstruction and I learned Eva Karczag’s role. We reconstructed it again for NYLA in 2014, and we’re already in the midst of another reconstruction, which means that all four roles are being learned from the video, not by someone teaching them. Every time you do a reconstruction you go a little bit deeper, learn a little bit more, and go a little bit closer to what it was originally. I try to do all my research as best I can. There is some availability of Trisha’s notebooks to reference, There’s also getting the original cast together, which I did for Opal Loop in 2014. There’s the video, which can both tell you a lot and be totally mysterious. You also think about the time period. I always think about the previous dance. What was made before? What was Trisha playing with before this that might have led her to what she’s playing with here? You just try to come at it from every angle.
So between the last reconstruction and what we’re doing now, something happened by surprise. I was watching the video for Opal Loop, and there are these four phrases that Trisha taught and then the dancers improvised with them and set the improvisation. Then there’s this other phrase and I’m looking at the video thinking that that phrase looks a lot like this other phrase that’s in Solo Olos, where the dancers each made their own phrase from a list of instructions. It looked like an instructions phrase to me. There’s this one edit where I see Stephen with a piece of paper on the floor and he goes over and consults it and then goes back and dances.
MW: So it was an instructions phrase!
DM: Well, then I get the four original dancers together and ask them if this phrase was made from instructions. And they all said no. And I was like “but look, there’s Stephen looking at a piece of paper.” “Oh maybe…” they said. And then totally by happenstance while rehearsing something else, I mention something about an instructions phrase in Opal Loop and Neal [Beasley], who worked in the archive for a while, asked if I had ever seen that TV shoot about Trisha where she reads off the instructions for Opal Loop? And I said, “what? What do you mean?” And he brought it up on the computer and, Neal being Neal, he transcribed it for me and now I can give it to the dancers.
MW: Almost like a primary source.
DM: Yes. They had the experience of making a phrase using instructions for Solo Olos, which we had just previously reconstructed. They have made those connections in their own mind to body pathways. They’ve experienced what it means to make movement from instructions and that can inform other instructions phrases.
MW: Even if they’re not the authors of the movement.
DM: Exactly. How much the instructions are used in the dance is actually quite small. But it’s something. That came up out of nowhere. Then another day, Eva [Karczag] and Shelley [Senter] were at Gibney when we were rehearsing there, and they popped their heads in. I run rehearsals with an open door, so I was like, “come on in!” It’s always good to have them come in. I asked them to watch. Eva was in the original cast and Shelley learned Trisha’s role. They watched and just by sitting there, some other tidbits of information came out. That’s all to tell you that it’s not a linear process; you just grab whatever you can whenever you can to create a full picture.
MW: Yes it seems like there are lots of tools to rely on now that she’s no longer physically present in rehearsals. Some dancers have been hired since 2013 that haven’t ever worked with Trisha herself, correct?
DM: Right, but I rely on those younger dancers and their aggressive learning and going after the material. They will show me and teach me, “no, Di this is what’s going on here.” I can only see so much. You look at something over and over and over again for so many years, and there are still times when I see things I’ve never seen. It’s because Trisha’s work is so complex. The dancers are great; they are yet another resource even though they are learning. The way they go about learning is research.
MW: So wrapping up, I wanted to talk about Trisha’s legacy and what you consider to be the most enduring of her contributions to contemporary dance? How do you want her work to be remembered in fifty years?
DM: This should just roll off my tongue right?
MW: Well, it sounds like it is an ongoing project, one that you have to constantly re-imagine and renegotiate.
DM: Yes. Well, I love Trisha and the work so much, I’m determined to do right by it.
MW: Maybe you can answer the question of what she has given to the field of contemporary dance.
DM: See that’s harder for me.
MW: Or rather, how do you see her legacy living on?
DM: All those questions about greater context and what she’s given to the field are hard for me, because I’m so inside of it. For good or for bad, it is what it is. I keep zooming in on Trisha the person and how I experienced her as a dancer and an artist. She’s this balance of joy, playfulness, spirit–I hear her laughter–and this incredible workhorse, focused, tenacious, stick-to-your-guns but be flexible at the same time. The brilliance of her art came from that ability to have both. Oftentimes people focus on one or the other, but what I want to say to the world is that, both are so important in relationship to one another. She had this steel-trap mind and this amazing work ethic, and she would envision something and just very directly apply herself to it. For instance, the proscenium stage, she approached it as, “what do I see? What can I do with this? How can I play with this?” There’s so much diligent exploration in her work, and so much playfulness. There is something special about the combination of those two things.
MW: That reminds me of the story you told me at the beginning of the interview about the piece of paper prompt at the workshop at Tufts. Someone asked what to do with their head, and she said basically “don’t think, do it.”
MW: She is obviously so thoughtful and so smart. But her work is a mix of the cerebral and the physical in equal measure. When you have the intelligence as a foundation, the work sits on top of that and it exists in a different sphere, on a sort of elevated plane. That’s the sensation I get when I see it. Her touch is light; it’s not heavy-handed. It can be enjoyed on so many different levels.
DM: You just said it really beautifully.
MW: Well thinking about it now, that’s how I can articulate what moves me so much about her work.
DM: There’s all that life in it. I just reminded myself of something she would say when she did Accumulation with Talking Plus Watermotor. She was splicing not only the two dances together but also two stories together. She would say something like, and I’m not quoting exactly, “my father died between the making of this move and this move.” So that life, that content, is in there, within this very mathematical accumulation, this structure of movement. She had both. She held both. She kept both alive and in many ways, what I’ve loved about doing her work is that I find her thinking and the resulting choreographic structures so solid, that it gives you space to really play and express your uniqueness. Ultimately what I want to give the dance world is her rigor. That’s the piece that I think could strengthen a lot of people’s creative processes, understanding how rigor can support their unique creativity. And if anyone figured that out Trisha did.
Diane Madden, Trisha Brown, Trisha Brown Dance Company