Trisha Brown: between physiotherapy and Pilates

The American choreographer's work is performed at Tate Modern as part of Dance Umbrella 2010.

Drift, the elusive walking performance between the Southbank Centre and Tate Modern, is my first (near) encounter with the work of Trisha Brown, one of the most revered figures of postmodern choreography. I must have just missed the dancers at the weekend as they set out from a crowded South Bank promenade; the second time round, knowing exactly where to look and what to look for, I only catch the tail end of the performance at the side entrance of Tate Modern.

Luckily, I am there in time for the start of Brown's Early Works, re-enacted by members of her legendary dance company inside the Turbine Hall and amid the Tate collections. These short pieces, dating back to the 1970s and recreated in a gallery setting for which they were originally intended, form a perfect introduction to Trisha Brown's avant-garde output. "Pedestrian movements are the DNA of her later pieces," Laurel Tendino, one of the performers, tells me at the end of the show. "Pedestrian" is not quite how I would put it. The grammar of gestures and motions that these early pieces elaborate is deceptive in its simplicity. And yet the first piece, with its series of repetitive, syncopated movements performed lying down on the Tate Modern bridge, struck me as a cross between physiotherapy and Pilates sessions.

Sequences of danced actions rather than fully fledged choreographies, these mini-performances take cue from their immediate surroundings. Leaning Duets, for example, had pairs of dancers holding hands and leaning into each other for support as they walked down the slope of the Turbine Hall, one of the building's wonderful oddities. Another delicate balancing act, Sticks responded directly to the exhibits on show in the "Arte Povera" room on the fifth level, most obviously Giuseppe Penone's Tree of 12 Metres (1947) -- two polished tree trunks with stumpy offshoots that fill the height of the gallery space.

In contrast to the polished choreographed pieces included in the Trisha Brown Repertory Evening, performed on the more conventional stage of Queen Elizabeth Hall, the danced actions created with a non-theatrical venue in mind had an appealingly rough-and-ready quality. Seen from up close in museum rooms, the rigid demarcation between spectators and performers cast aside, the dancers lose some of their aura, to be sure. While eye contact with the audience is generally avoided in Brown's choreography, a playful intention comes across through body language and gesture. The witty Spanish Dance, set amid Joseph Beuys's iron and bronze sculptures including Lightning with Stag in its Glare (1958), saw female dancers rhythmically edge forward in a neat row with their arms raised above their heads, mimicking flamenco movements to the sound of Bob Dylan's "Early Morning Rain".

Despite the difficulties and costs involved in staging performances such as this one, contemporary dancers are increasingly called on to animate gallery spaces. The recent flurry of collaborations between dance companies and modern art museums, not least Tate's, culminates in the Hayward Gallery's current exhibition, Move: Choreographing You, which includes performances and installation works by Brown.

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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war