Trisha Brown at a dress rehearsal for “Winterreise” in 2002.
Credit Andrea Mohin/The New York Times
The famous choreographer and important member of the founding generation of American postmodern dance, died on Saturday in San Antonio. She was 80 and had been treated for vascular dementia since 2011. One of the last times she appeared in a press conference was in Lyon, back in 2010, in the Biennale in the middle of September, and she did not seem very well.
Few dance inventors have so combined the cerebral and sensuous sides of dance as Ms. Brown did, and few have been as influential. Her choreography, showcased primarily in New York, helped shape generations of modern dance creators into the 21st century.
In December 2012 was announced that the two dances she had made the previous year would be her last. By that point, she had been an international figure for over 30 years, choreographing for the Paris Opera Ballet, collaborating with Mikhail Baryshnikov, and commissioning stage designs from Robert Rauschenberg and other eminent visual artists, including Donald Judd and Nancy Graves.
In 1983, she won European as well as American acclaim for “Set and Reset”. This intensely sensuous theater piece, with music by Laurie Anderson and designs by Rauschenberg, became the most beloved work ever made in postmodern dance. In the 1980s, her influence was cited by the American choreographers David Gordon, Mark Morris and Stephen Petronio; and her work began to join the repertories of other dance companies.
In 1988, the French government named Ms. Brown Chevalier dans L’Ordre des Arts et des Letttres. In January 2000 she was promoted to Officier and in 2004 to Commandeur. In 1991, she was became a MacArthur Fellow, the first female choreographer to achieve this distinction.
Patricia Ann Brown was born on Nov. 25, 1936, to the former Dorothy Louise Abel, an English teacher, and Martell W. Brown, a salesman. In later years she often spoke of her debt to the landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. In public conversation with the choreographer Merce Cunningham (also from Washington State), she once remarked, “The rain forest was my first art class.”
Ms. Brown graduated from Weatherwax High School in Aberdeen in 1954 and studied modern dance at Mills College, in Oakland, Calif., earning a degree in 1958. She taught dance at Reed College in Oregon for the next academic year and also studied at the American Dance Festival summer schools of 1958, 1959 and 1961, learning especially from Louis Horst, the veteran pedagogue of modern dance composition.
Her next chief influences were the postmodern choreographer and teacher Robert Ellis Dunn and John Cage, the radical composer whose ideas on music and art opened up many possibilities.
After moving to New York in 1961, she helped found the avant-garde Judson Dance Theater group the next year. Like her colleagues Mr. Gordon, Steve Paxton and Yvonne Rainer, she made dances that eliminated bravura, academic technique, acting and musicality — the hallmarks of modern dance as it had been developed by Martha Graham and others, not to mention ballet.
In 1970, Ms. Brown helped found another experimental collective, Grand Union, as well as her own troupe, the Trisha Brown Dance Company.
In those years she worked, as a rule, in unconventional spaces and without music. The term “postmodern dance” was not coined until the late 1970s, and perhaps it can now be seen that Ms. Brown and others were leading dance at that time into the radical extremes of modernism.
Merce Cunningham, whom she greatly admired, had made dance independent from music and design; she in turn helped to make it independent of technical rigor and, in the 1970s, to present it with no musical accompaniment.
This was “democratic dance,” composed largely of movement that the average untrained dancer could do, albeit in new combinations. Some dances were performed barefoot, others in sneakers.
Three historic works that Ms. Brown made in 1971 suggest much in their titles alone: “Walking on the Wall”, “Roof Piece” and “Accumulation”. “Walking” had dancers suspended in harnesses moving sideways along walls; “Roof” spread its dancers across 12 roofs on 10 SoHo blocks; “Accumulation” was a formal study in graduated movement, with repeated phrases building in complexity — like sentences that each time added one word.
The experimental dance of that era, embodied in those pieces, set itself up against virtuosity. Ms. Brown nonetheless now became a virtuoso of a new kind.
In 1978 she took her “Accumulation” solo and embellished it, showing, in “Accumulation With Talking Plus Water Motor” just how many things could be done simultaneously. She could coordinate several physical acts while talking, as if illustrating multiple trains of thought in action. Having earlier pared dance down to its basics, now she was rebuilding it in new ways, and it was then that she became a seminal figure of truly postmodern dance.
A classic of hers from this era was “Opal Loop/Cloud Installation” (1980), among the purest of all pure-dance works. A quartet in silence, it is its own music, the connections and ricochets between the dancers making its harmonies marvelous. Here “the line of least resistance” became gorgeous: a fascinating chain sequence of hitches, ripples, shimmies, hops, knee bends.
The style was often called “release technique,” whose invention some accredited to her. (In fact, release technique was devised by another native of Washington State, Joan Skinner) Ms. Brown, a gently but memorably witty woman, simply described her own idiom as “the line of least resistance,” neatly evoking the rippling chain-effect of through-the-body impulses and ricochets that characterized much of her dance.
By this time, Ms. Brown was already moving on, starting a different kind of dance theater. From 1979 she made a series of pieces that turned her purity into a new kind of theatricality, sometimes ravishing and generally novel, working with designers like Rauschenberg , and with sound scores and music by Ms. Anderson, Judd and others.
Credit Andrea Mohin/The New York Times
It was these pieces, notably “Set and Reset”, that brought her a new kind of worldwide prestige. By the late 1980s, she was having seasons in big theaters like City Center in New York and Sadler’s Wells in London; and she became a darling of the French. She never quite abandoned this style, returning to it in 2011 for her final creation, “I’m going to toss my arms – if you catch them they’re yours”, which had designs by her husband, Burt Barr, and music by Alvin Curran.
From the late 1980s on, Ms. Brown opened up her next phase: a new engagement with classical music. The composers Monteverdi, Bach, Rameau, Schubert and Bizet supplied her with the challenges she needed, and her responses were never conventional in musicality or theatricality.
Her “M-O” (1995) was based on Bach’s “Musical Offering”; in 2002, she staged Schubert’s “Winterreise” with the eminent baritone and great mover, Simon Keenlyside.
For decades, Ms. Brown was her own greatest dancer, creating many remarkable solos for herself. “If You Could See Me” (1994) memorably fused her cerebral and sensuous sides. The underpinning notion — a gimmick, you might say — was that her back remained turned to the audience throughout. The transcendent factor lay in her spine’s fluidity. When, in 1989, Mr. Baryshnikov turned from being a ballet specialist to a master investigator of American modern dance, Ms. Brown was a favorite collaborator. That solo in 1995 became a duet,”You Can See Us”. As danced in 1996, this showed Mr. Baryshnikov facing front; Ms. Brown still kept her back to the audience.
From the 1930s on, a series of choreographers had made New York a haven for pure dance. Of those choreographers, Cunningham and Ms. Brown were among the brainiest. Devotees of difficulty, they never needed to court an audience.
The news that her 2011 dances would be her last — she had made over 100 dances, many of which had been recorded on film and video — followed Cunningham’s death in 2009 and the closing of his company in December 2011. Plans for the limited afterlife of her company were announced in the ensuing months and years.
In January 2016, the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) gave a season to the company’s final presentation of her “proscenium” theater pieces. Since 2015, “In Plain Site” seasons have been given in special locations, excerpting dances from her repertory and asking audiences to walk around different rooms to observe the various dances (an entirely Brownian idea). In 2016, the art historian Susan Rosenberg published “Trisha Brown: Choreography as Visual Art” (Wesleyan University Press).
Mr. Barr, Ms. Brown’s husband, died in November. She is survived by her son, Adam; four grandchildren; a brother, Gordon; and a sister, Louisa Brown.
Since the 1980s, Brown dances have often been performed by other companies. Her “Set and Reset” is usually included in the undergraduate curriculum for French dance students. The choreographer Mr. Petronio, a member of her dance company in the early 1980s, added her “Glacial Decoy” to his company’s repertory in 2016.
But Ms. Brown’s work is not easily codified, and its language may prove elusive to dancers from generations who did not know the casual body language of the last century. All dance legacies are fragile; hers may prove especially so.
Any avant-gardist of this pertinacity should continue to provoke debate. How great was even Ms. Brown’s greatest work? That motto of hers, “the line of least resistance,” has sometimes suggested her own limitations: Her work has often seemed to lack drama. Or did it rather extend our idea of drama? Much of Ms. Brown’s work created intensely kinesthetic currents. Audiences felt them even as they watched them. Dances in which nothing happened became dances in which much was eventful.