Being Trisha Brown

In the middle of the Contemporary Arts Museum lies a chest-high, 12- by 14-foot grid of metal pipe, latticed with garments hung on ropes. This is not a giant clothesline; it is the set for Trisha Brown's Floor of the Forest (1970). Clad in black trunks and tanks, students from the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts alternate climbing onto the grid and dressing and undressing themselves in the clothes. The strength and agility required for this hour-long work are mesmerizing to watch. They crawl across the ropes and slither into T-shirts and jerseys and cotton shorts and then rest, suspended in clothing hammocks. Viewers can look at them under the grid and then peer over it for a three-dimensional experience. When the dancers are resting, some close their eyes; their limbs hanging toward the floor, they look like bats sleeping in cotton comfort.

Watching girls crawl along the ropes and slide in and out of clothing may not be what most folks think of as dance. Then again, Brown was one of the early Judson Church members who helped redefine dance. As the diva of postmodernism, the queen of breathing art into ordinary movement, and an innovator of collaborations with some of the hippest artists from the '60s, '70s and '80s, Brown has her own retrospective exhibit: "Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dialogue, 1961-2001," through September 14 at the CAM.

Visitors who are unfamiliar with her work are taken historically through her 40-year career to show the impact she has had on art. For those familiar with her works, the exhibit is like Being Trisha Brown. You crawl into her skin -- not through a tiny door but via her own visual artwork, sketchbooks, choreographic notes and videos. You see how her collaborations with the likes of Nancy Graves, Donald Judd, Fujiko Nakaya, Terry Winters and Robert Rauschenberg came into being, and you see some of the remarkable pieces used in the dances.

There's the yellow papier-mâché and chicken feather costume from The Dance with the Duck's Head (1968), a highly theatrical piece originally performed at the Museum of Modern Art. In that one, Brown wore a pair of logging boots bolted to a metal frame, so performers could lift her into the air in duck flight. There's also the costume from Homemade (1966). This signature Brown solo combined pedestrian movement with a film of the dance projected onto walls and over the audience. What's amazing is that the projector, a hulking '60s-era machine, was mounted on Brown's back as she moved through the piece. While the dance is still compelling to watch, one wonders how her choreography would be different with today's small and light electronic equipment.

In the exhibit, constant sound comes from four of Rauschenberg's original eight movement-activated, metal sound and light towers created for Astral Convertible (1989) and reused in Astral Convertible 55 (1991). One of the most delightful sections, dedicated to Opal Loop/Cloud Installation #72503, actually creates new art. There's a short video on the work, with narration, and one of Nakaya's "cloud machines," a device that sends heated water through high- pressure nozzles to create indoor fog. When the machine is working -- which isn't always the case -- the video of the dance is projected through the fog and onto a wall. The effect is a ghostly hologram of tiny dancers leaping and turning through the fog. It's an eerie and fascinating visual. On opening day, people stood for long periods just staring at the fog's small dancers, while children ran through them.

Other performances, such as Group Primary Accumulation (1973), which the HSPVA kids performed outside on the museum lawn, are pure, filtered movement -- no music, no sets. Four dancers lie on the grass and move through a 40-count floor barre in unison. Arms and legs curve through space, turn in, turn out and roll to the side.

HSPVA students will perform again on August 24 and September 6. The CAM also offers free showings of three all-time great dance flicks: Singing in the Rain on July 24, Saturday Night Fever on August 7 and Billy Elliot on August 28. Showings are outside at 8:30 p.m.

This exhibit is all about exploring and pushing the boundaries of art. Brown mixes traditional choreographed movement with visual arts and artists to create performance art and visual art that can stand alone from the performance. That's the case with Floor of the Forest, where the grid itself seems quite at home in a contemporary museum setting.

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Marene Gustin