I originally placed Accumulation in conversation with Jèrôme Bel’s The Show Must Go On, perhaps primarily for a silly reason: her use of a Grateful Dead song in this original but anomalous dance (subsequent Accumulations were made sans soundtrack).
For that is perhaps where the similarities between her and Bel end: her work in Accumulation is highly structured, mathematical. By using everyday gestures in a highly codified sequence, she makes us see them as anything but ordinary. The individual movements she stages come from a place of unconscious doing: tasks, habits, ordinary movements like rotating the thumb or taking a step back. Many of these movements could be of the sort one might do without realizing one is moving, or knowing why one is doing them. The origin of these moves seems far from “the theater,” and especially far from dance. So it could perhaps be said that placing them on the stage is a gimmick, an interesting exercise, nothing more. But like Bel’s work, Brown’s denies simple categories.
The premier of Accumulation (1971) occurred in a gymnasium in an NYU School of Education building. It was unceremonious and (as far as I could find) not deemed worthy of documentation by video and only hardly so by review. The one review I found by Anna Kisselgoff described the piece as a “choreographic miniature” and equated it with the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”; though Kisselfgoff does not condemn the work, she seems at a loss for words to analyze it. She does not take note of the music; it seems not to have made an impression. And indeed many critics and scholars who would analyze later reenactments of this Accumulation would either ignore or express puzzlement at the accompaniment.
Marcia B. Siegel mistakes the music choice to be a later development when she reviews a reenactment of the piece in 1998 (despite claiming in a separate article about having been at the original dance in 1971). In the review, she says she was “distracted” by the music, because she wanted to “store the movement data, not listen to a lot of words.” She wants to control the piece, wants to remain in her own head instead of meeting the dancer in hers. Prior to Accumulation (1971), Brown had danced mostly in silence, never to a recorded piece of music—much less a rock song. In the same way The Show Must Go On uses popular music, Brown’s use of the Grateful Dead’s “Uncle John’s Band” seems to be invite a sort of absorption, to eradicate the theatrical distance between object and beholder. The song is unusually catchy for the Dead, and like the songs in The Show Must Go On, it almost seems we are meant to be transported into our past memories, fully inside the song when and where you first heard it.
This absorption is deceptive, however, because as Siegel says, to a serious dance critic the music is merely distracting: the music and the movements are dissonant; they hit against one another. Should we be drawn in or should we coolly observe the “physical descriptions of ideas”, as Sally Banes describes the discrete bits of the sequence? As the choreography continues, it does not match the music’s rhythm or time signature completely, as it reveals its own internal structure or “art-making machine.” As if in response to the evolution of post-Renaissance dance, which has allowed music to dictate its configuration, her dance rejects that tyranny.
The music is a strong partner, nevertheless; what is it doing there, if we are meant to focus on the movement? The discord struck by the fact that she somewhat ignores the music, and yet also takes cues from it as to where to begin and end, leaves the question open. It does not remove an element Brown does not like, it deals with it, as we should do outside the theater.
Triumphing over a hardship does not necessarily mean banishing it from your life (not a non-sequitur—stay with me). Learning the skill of meditation, for example, does not involve ridding your space of all sounds and distractions, but rather finding ways to create inner silence and peace amidst the distractions. In this way, Trisha Brown “takes orders” or cues from her choreographic structure amidst the blaring Dead; a device she has created to overcome the overpowering music, and in showing us the piece she invites us to do the same.
The juxtaposition of the music and the choreography makes both seem strange: the song in this context, and the movements to the song. And such a juxtaposition supports a larger project within the piece of making the quotidian strange, a process which establishes an infinite back-and-forth between object and beholder.
In making her own body both a subject and object of research, Brown rejects the objectification of herself that the tradition of dance had brought her to: she is not here to impress us with virtuosic, impressive movements. Indeed, she will not move from the spot on which she begins. Furthermore, she constantly returns to the beginning, upsetting the forward motion of a dance with a beginning, middle, and end. The beginnings and ends are dispersed throughout, and the piece comes to a close only because the music does; not because of the choreography. But the music does not help her tell a story, either—it is almost incidental.
Brown’s choreography could go on forever; in certain ways it does. But does she on the stage appear to us in infinitely? The simplicity of the moves show she could do the piece well into old age (evidenced by the recording of the piece which does exist; a full twenty-five years after its first performance), and that a number of people could learn to do the dance. But the song itself is always the same recording: about four minutes long. Deadheads will tell you how the band is famous for its improvisational jam sessions interpolated throughout original songs, yet when Accumulation (1971) is performed, the soundtrack is always the same. This points to a finiteness of the piece; it is confined to the limits of the song.
The emergence of postmodern dance—the era in which Brown worked—could be framed as an act of distancing: the dancers from the audience, the audience from narrative footholds, the art form from inflexible requirements of technique and skill. Among these many rebellious acts, perhaps the most jarring one from the audience’s perspective was the impression that the dancers simply did not care about them. In working towards goals opposed to absorption, artists from the Judson Dance Theater, Grand Union, and elsewhere startled audiences with challenging work designed to break down the boundary “between art and life experiences”, and few artists did this more systematically and comprehensively than Brown.
Brown imitates life in her art: Accumulation is a series of gestures you could see anywhere, but in structuring them she makes them strange; putting the everyday in the strict codification of choreographic dance makes a puzzle that is not instantly reconcilable. As Banes would say, it shows a “distortion inherent when a conceptual system is materialized.” She also denies the forwardness of time by going back to the beginning each time she adds a gesture. We are left with an inevitability that steps outside of time. And even though the original piece ends with the final “da-da-da-dum-da-hm” of “Uncle John’s Band,” further iterations would go on longer, and there is a sense that the dance could keep cycling forever. And in a different sense it has; this dance is at once a dance and a technique of making dances, which allows the dance to be documented in traces in perpetuity.
Brown allows us to see in the future, as we can imagine her dance extending into the future. It promises a sort of knowing that is certain: we will see the gestures we saw before as she goes back through them. And not only can we know this intellectually—we saw her do these gestures and we know they will repeat—we can also embody them, imagining or literally trying to do the dance. Because while it is challenging (as I found when I tried to dance it myself), it is also conceivable that one could learn the series of individual gestures that are easy; everyday.
This ease evoked by the everyday is therefore an illusion of sorts, and modernist art depends upon illusion: when you are looking at a rectangle on canvas, you are not seeing the canvas, you are seeing what it is portraying as though it is a “window” into reality. This illusion is what the Minimalists sculptors sought to eradicate, thought that art must eradicate. In undeniable ways Trisha Brown sought to remove this illusion from her work.
But this begs the question: is the breakdown between art and life more “real,” or is realism in modern art more “real”? Is it more truthful to put life on the stage, or does putting an illusion on the stage give us more insight to what truths there might be in life? The postmodernists Trisha Brown was working with, especially Yvonne Rainer and her “No Manifesto,” argue the former. And Brown’s work agrees, mostly. But there also seems to be a caveat: yes, we should reject the magic illusionism tries to create, but this does not mean there isn’t magic to be found within the constraints of reality. “Look how I can structure the everyday in a way that transcends the everyday!” she seems to be saying.
Though in the context of postmodern dance Trisha Brown was reacting against the characterization that had become the norm in modern dance, in her own way she makes herself into a character; perhaps this allows the catharsis that the theater can provide. In a time when dancing bodies were muscular, lithe, and evidently “well trained”, hers was less so. Her body’s differentness had such an impact that it has now become a colloquialism to refer to the “Brownian Body.” When teaching her students Accumulation, she pointed out that one of her fingers is broken and so sticks out an odd angle when she does one of the gestures. She specifically gets them to do so as well, saying, “That kind of eccentricity I allow.”
Every time Accumulation (1971) is done, not only is the original music used, the same casual-looking red and white bell-bottoms are worn with the same long-sleeved white shirt. While the accumulative mode of making dances has surpassed its original iteration, there is also a certain way in which the first one has been preserved, and one function of this is that it creates a character of Trisha Brown that lives on, regardless of whether or not she herself is young, old, alive, dead, dancing the piece or not. When new dancers do the piece (as I saw Brandi Norton perform at New York Live Arts in 2011), they always maintain the “quietly fantastic” air Brown summoned in that original performance. They are not simply doing a dance, they are playing a role. This makes them into a character, but also an object.
What does her piece “mean”? we wonder. We are not struck by it immediately, we engage in a relationship with the piece as it accumulates. She plays a character of herself whose idiosyncrasies meet us instantaneously—the near-quaintness of her costume and the way in which she stays rooted to the spot throughout. She does not move to a new location; she does move through this strange gesture sequence, through her unusual compilation of everyday activities. And although her self has presence, her body has is a mere object. Her persona splits from the body that is doing the moves, because the unusual compilation of everyday activities are not anchored to a person’s reality as a person, nor to a dancer’s reality as a dancer.
- Kisselgoff, Anna. “Dances at Angles Offered at N.Y.U.” New York Times 24 Oct. 1971; p. 81.
- Siegel, Marcia B. “Erased Plots: Seen and Unseen in Trisha Brown.” The Boston Phoenix. 5 Feb. 1998. Web. 04 Nov. 2013. <http://www.bostonphoenix.com/archive/dance/98/02/05/TRISHA_BROWN.html>.
- Siegel, Marcia B. “Making Chaos Visible.” Hudson Review 56.1 (2003): p. 142.
- Siegel, “Erased Plots.”
- Banes, Sally. Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-Modern Dance. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980: p. 15-16.
- ibid, p. 84. “The breakdown of the distinction between art and life […] the clarification of individual, discrete movements, the isolation of the essential characteristics of dance, have all become valid purposes for making a dance. So has the option of making a dance for the pleasure of the dancer, whether or not the spectator finds it pleasing, or even accessible.”
- Banes, p. 10.
- Banes, p. 84.
- Banes, p. 43: “NO to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformations and magic and make-believe…”
- Banes, p. 83.