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.