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Dancing Up a Storm on the High Line

Trisha Brown Dance Company's Nicholas Strafaccia on the High Line (all photos by author)

Minutes before the much-admired postmodern choreographer Trisha Brown was to stage her early 1973 “Roof Piece” on Thursday, June 9, the High Line’s urban park rangers and the stage managers of Trisha Brown’s Dance Company began to panic. An upstaging performance by a potentially show-stopping tornado struck fear upon headsets and walkie-talkies alike. Would the show go on?

After spending the day in the muggiest of 92-degree heat, a torrential downpour would have been welcome if it weren’t for this outdoor performance, a rare and highly anticipated opportunity to re-experience a moment in dance history. Standing in tight clusters under a not-so-protective awning, Brown’s audience displayed a brave, steadfast appreciation for dance into the teeth of an untimely storm. Eventually, the dancers were cleared to start.

Spectators on the High Line watching Trisha Brown's “Roof Piece”

“Roof Piece” redefines where we can experience dance in New York City. Using Manhattan’s skyline as a backdrop, Brown created an intensified perceptual awareness of the city, an experience shared amongst her dancers and the High Line audience members. Playing with different architectural spaces, “Roof Piece” investigates the persistence of the body’s presence within a greater urban environment.

The choreographic work originally debuted in 1973 above the warehouses of West 13th and Gansevoort Street.  As a founding member of the Judson Dance Theater and pioneer of postmodern dance, Trisha Brown and other artists including Steve Paxton, Meredith Monk and Yvonne Rainer experimented with the spontaneity in improvisation and opportunity that lay in site-specific work. By using non-traditional locations, the artists were able escape the confines of the hallowed stage, creating movement that interacted with the physical environment and intimately involving the viewer.

Trisha Brown Dance Company's Neal Beasley

Each dancer in “Roof Piece” is strategically positioned on different platforms and corners of industrial buildings. Creating a scavenger hunt for the audience’s eyes, “Roof Piece” encourages viewers to walk up and down the Highline and spot nine red Terpsichores in gray Converse sneakers. Perched above meat markets and corporate buildings, the dancers could be identified as small red toy soldiers, prepared to take on their industrial landscape.

The placement of each dancer varied, and as the piece developed, the pose and orientation of each dancer changed. The performers shift from an intimate dance for the onlookers perched on the High Line, expanding their performance to a larger audience of taxicabs riders and Chelsea restaurant diners, the anonymous spectators of the city.

Starting with a leader (originally Trisha Brown herself) and ending with the dancer farthest away, “Roof Piece” begins as a structured improvisation that travels above streets and buildings. On the corner of Washington Street, Leah Morrison sent her improvised movement across eight different bodies like a game of telephone.  The folding of arms and swinging of legs that made up the dancers’ gestures are all within Trisha Brown’s established vocabulary of movement. Brown’s use of improvisation in “Roof Piece” challenges how movement travels from one body to another. Since each dancer is never able to see all the other dancers, the individual dancer has to interpret what they are able to see, and then send it to the next dancer as their own. After fifteen minutes of movement, the chain reverses, starting with Elena Demyanenko and ending back with Morrison.

Watching “Roof Piece” from the High Line

Since there is no musical accompaniment to the piece, there is only the soundscape of New York City to set a rhythmic pulse to “Roof Dance”; the dancers rely only on each other for timing and pacing. Forcing the dancers to peek through stairs and glance over parking lots, Brown creates a zigzagging string of interconnectedness between each dancer and the next. The audience’s eye tries to travel with the chain of movement, but the audience ultimately has to walk to experience the totality the piece, becoming a conscious participant in the choreography.

As the performance further progresses, the audience becomes a part of “Roof Piece,” defining the choreography’s points of focus by the audience’s field of view. The High Line is a dynamic space — walk further north or further south along Tenth Avenue and dancers move in and out of sight, changing the choreographic composition. When the High Line spectators walked around each other and pointed out the dancers, our pedestrian gestures became part of the piece. If an audience member stands in front of a dancer’s line of sight, blocking the line of view from one dancer to another, the spectator has a direct effect on the shape and progression of the piece. The dancers and the audience members all became a part of Brown’s choreography.

Trisha Brown Dance Company dancer Nicholas Strafaccio

The architecture of the High Line’s platforms and stair landings create limitations and restrictions on the dancer’s movements. Unfortunately enough for me, I look forward to Brown’s traveling phrases the most — dancing that requires more space than a ledge to perform. I love the surprises that Brown packs in the partnered lifts and small jumps in choreography pieces like “Foray Forêt” and “How Long Does the Subject Linger on the Edge of the Volume.” Those weren’t possible on the High Line, but he lack of big and expansive movement did bring more attention and focus to the small gestural details and choices that the dancers made.

Every time I see Trisha Brown’s Dance Company perform or watch video clips of Trisha dancing, I always feel a competitive yet pleasurable mix of emotions as a fellow dancer, a cocktail of feelings that often force me to unwillingly ask out loud, “how did she think of that?” and “why not me?” “Roof Piece” on the High Line was a conceptual dance that I felt emotionally and physically involved in, and I enjoyed the perspective that Brown kindly shared with her audience. But, as someone who looks up to Trisha Brown, who loves Trisha Brown, and wants to be Trisha Brown, I’m still waiting for the opportunity to see the choreographer herself uninhibitedly dance “Watermotor” or defy gravity by walking down the side of a building. Or perhaps, to invite me to fill in.  Or ask me to collaborate. I’m no Rauschenberg, but still.

Ms. Brown, if you read this, please know that I’m willing to follow you anywhere. I’ll even wait out a storm.

Choreographer Trisha Brown and dancer Nicholas Strafaccia

Trisha Brown’s “Roof Piece” was staged on the High Line on Thursday June 9, 2011.

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