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S&H Interview

Trisha Brown in interview with Melanie Eskenazi


'There is nothing like dancing after all. I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished societies.'

'Certainly, sir, - and it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world. Every savage can dance.' (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)

Trisha Brown portrait by Vicent

The American choreographer and director Trisha Brown is one of the few artists who can make us aware both of the universality of the dance and its sophisticated use in social and performance contexts, and her recent journeys into the world of opera have provided unique insights, not only into the intimate connections between dance and opera but the multi-layered complexities of the staging of baroque music. John Mark Ainsley, who sang the title role in her recent production of Monteverdi's 'L'Orfeo' at La Monnaie in Brussels, told me that Brown had been especially taken with a remark made by Monteverdi in a letter to one of his patrons; as though to advertise his new style of composing in what was then not yet called 'Opera,' Monteverdi wrote that 'In this Piece, the Actors will Sing.' For Trisha Brown, that remark can be adapted to read 'In this production, the Singers will Dance!' and this production of 'L'Orfeo' must have challenged its singers and its audiences almost as much as the original one when that was first seen in 1607.

I spoke to Trisha Brown and John Mark Ainsley on the day after the first night of the production, and asked Brown firstly what had attracted her to this particular piece. 'Well, I have always been totally open to the advice of people around me, and having done the choreography for 'Carmen' amongst other opera - related projects, I was interested in the idea of Gluck's 'Orpheus' but then I came into competition with Mark Morris on that one, and of course you can't have two American choreographers doing the same thing! It was Bernard Fouccroulle (the Intendant at La Monnaie) who first embarked on serious discussions with me about doing Monteverdi's Orfeo, and it all happened very quickly, ending up here in 1998' (with Simon Keenlyside in the title role.)

Brown's production begins with a visually and intellectually striking presentation of the role of La Musica; normally envisaged as a singer onstage introducing the audience to the piece, this version has the singer in the pit, black-clad along with the orchestra, whilst Music itself is represented by a dancer who moves aerially through a milky sphere, sometimes resembling the 'Putti' on Renaissance trompe l-oeil paintings in her postures: ' In my estimation La Musica is the embodiment of music and so she would be free to travel anywhere in time and space; she is a ceiling painting, yes, and she's also the guide from one world into the next, leading us through the passage from one plane to another. It was a matter of working with the strophes and the ritornelli, and the music and text really dictated the movements, as in that moment when she suddenly drops from the top to the bottom edge of the sphere -that's when she commands everyone to listen, and you need to use both a dramatic movement and introduce stillness.'

This opening concept is typical of this director's approach to opera, both in its use of visual images and its faithfulness to, and respect for, not only the music but the text. 'I am a visual artist and I work with geometric forms within art, so when you say that you can relate what you see on stage to Renaissance painting, you are seeing classical proportions. I have always been fascinated by language, and my assistant - who has a PhD in Italian Renaissance Poetry - and I went through the text thoroughly, immersing ourselves in it; things such as the word 'disgombre,' which spoke to me so strongly, need something more than a general gesture to evoke their meaning, which is not just simply 'scattered,' it's so much more than that, and I think that my first big acceptance by the singers came when they realized that I was intimate with the text and the music.' This unusual and most welcome familiarity with the work itself is something much appreciated by Ainsley: 'Trisha is involved with art on a demanding level, with no sense of simply wanting to make a picture or woo an audience gratuitously; it's exciting and absorbing, what you might call Orfeo for grown - ups, and it's doubly exciting that the spectrum of what you can see on stage can take in something as intellectually demanding as this.'

Amongst many memorable instances of imagery in this production, the great moment when Orpheus is given the news of Euridice's death must be regarded as the most remarkable. It's one of those moments, like Hamlet's 'To be or not to be' which most people know and which is consequently difficult to stage in a way which is original whilst still respecting its unique quality, and Brown presents Orfeo's response not as the more conventional semi-death from grief in which he drops to the ground like a felled oak , but as what she describes as 'A composite of gestures and meaning; it's one of the strengths of this opera that it's so literal, and gestures need to mediate that, although they are very demanding for the singers. When he hears the news it goes down into his body like a lead weight, and then his posture at the end of that scene was a kind of continuation of that, but very much influenced by my feelings about the Messaggiera taking herself off to a cave like an ill-omened bat - his body echoes that huddled exile.'

In my review of the production I described this as being 'gracefully contorted into an emblem of shattered anguish,' and Ainsley describes the scene as 'One of those moments where Trisha scores a huge bulls-eye, since Monteverdi is so succinct in the way he sets up this scene - there's a constant shifting from minor to major, and to stage it as Trisha does represents a true response to the piece, to what's in the music and the text.' He made it all look easy, but 'You should see the rehearsal videotapes of it, with us laughing our heads off!' I asked director and 'singing / dancing actor' about the challenges of training to achieve such movement. Trisha Brown saw it as simply based on what she called 'The fundamentals. If you are grounded, if your weight is in the right place, then any movement is quite possible. We would teach them the fundamentals in the morning, then go on to specific movements in the afternoon; as far as, say, the Chorus was concerned, things such as rolling on stage - used to great effect to represent the River Styx - were simply putting basics into context.'

For Ainsley, the production represented challenges that were both seductive and daunting; 'The idea of working with dancers was very attractive to me, since when I was younger I very much wanted to be a dancer, but it was physically demanding; I did relish that challenge but the role is difficult enough to sing, and this version of it was of course originally conceived for Simon, who was a Cambridge Blue in Athletics, and I'm about as far as you could get from that whilst still being able to manage to do it! You need to be aware of your body, and we had a lot of basic training in such things as moving forward very slowly, shifting weight from one part of the body to another and putting a foot down without wobbling. For someone like me, it was all a bit like singing in 'Aida,' dancing 'Swan Lake' and playing 'Hamlet' all at the same time, and I can tell you I haven't been up long today (it was 3.00 in the afternoon on the day after the first night.)

Trisha Brown's approach to opera directing is evident from her reply to a question about her staging of the great set piece aria 'Possente Spirto;' Well, I was deeply moved by this music, I have such a great respect for it, and I just took the gestures from the words and music. When Orfeo lifts his hand to his eyes and then removes it and holds it aloft, this is just hiding his eyes from the glare of the almighty but also looking imperious himself - he is after all Apollo's son! I try to use as many references as possible to speak about what's happening here, and everything is tightly located in the text.' For the man who must sing this demanding aria, the vital aspect of Brown's reworking of the text is its honesty: 'Trisha has re-considered the great moments, maybe because she came fresh to them, and she found something in her discipline which chimes with those moments; she really got her hands dirty with all this, and there is no sense here of isolated arias but rather one marvellous arc of dramatic movement. Something we discussed at length was the way in which, at each time Orfeo has one of his outbursts, the same Sinfonia occurs, and I was thrilled that we saw this in the same way - it is Apollo's music, and it's like a friendly look from him in absentia. Trisha interprets it with two shady figures, the white and black dancers coming on as daemons to move Orfeo on to where he needs to be.'

Both director and leading man were delighted with the response given to the piece, and Brown's future plans include further explorations of opera and song, beginning with a staging of 'Winterreise' with Simon Keenlyside and possibly even embracing some productions of Mozart operas. 'Some of the worst choreography I've ever seen in my life has been on the opera stage, so I just feel that now, after more than twenty years in dance and 'daring' to go in for voice and opera, I have something to say! Everything for me is rooted in the text, and that's my preoccupation now, to release the text. I told Bernard when we first started on this, that I felt a sense of hubris in that I was walking in and thinking I had something to say about this; I felt in a way that my whole life was an apprenticeship leading up to this. Modern dance choreographers basically teach themselves how to do it, but there is always room to figure out more.'

Her approach to opera is thus radical without necessarily being shocking, and its quality of being rooted in the text and music provides a welcome respite from many less considered productions. 'I am at the stage of trying to understand the languages of both music and drama in the deepest way I can; I did a lot of very radical work when I was young, but came then to a system of how choreography supports itself within the proscenium stage - I suppose I had already done my bad girl stuff!'

She was guarded about detailed discussion of future productions, but when I tentatively suggested some areas of Mozart which seemed to me to be ideal for her approach, she laughed loudly and said 'It's almost like you've been sitting in on our meetings!' The practical problems of running a dance company always claim her attention - 'I have to consider where my dancers are, and it's not always easy to commit myself to being immersed in an opera for a length of time. The audience for Dance in the U.S. is, I believe, getting stronger all the time, and in the face of all the reductions in funding we have had, we now find people saying that we need to be lifted out of all this materialism, so I guess it's - bring on the dancing girls!'

Trisha Brown's productions cannot fail to engage opera audiences with their sense of theatricality, devotion to the score, sympathetic understanding of singers and aesthetic richness, and I look forward to experiencing many more in the future. In the meantime, her company will be heavily involved in the Summer Arts scene both in the U.S. and Europe, with performances in Montpellier in July followed by the American Dance Festival at Raleigh - Durham NC, as well as many New York dates including a performance in the Lincoln Center series in August.


Melanie Eskenazi

Diane Madden photographed by Johan Jacobs

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