Los Angeles

Trisha Brown in Los Angeles

"Floor of the Forest". Photo: Winarsh-Documenta 2007.

For whatever reason, the Los Angeles art community has dance on the brain. It may or may not have started with artist and choreographer Simone Forti’s inclusion as one of the “Made in L.A.” finalists (the Hammer Museum’s mega-group exhibition-cum-contest from last summer), but the upcoming “Dancing with the Art World” conference (again at the Hammer) clinches the deal—two days of lectures and events with luminaries like Forti and Yvonne Rainier, as well as Douglas Crimp and Andrea Fraser. The conference’s raison d’être is to investigate a so-called “explosion of dance being presented in an art context” over the past five to ten years, although we all know that dance and art have been lovers for longer than that.

Over the past week, UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance restaged multiple pieces by Trisha Brown, whose work over the last four decades has pushed the definition of dance and encouraged its viewers to reconsider what could be achieved under the rules of gravity. Originally from Washington, Brown found her way to New York, where she helped to found the Judson Dance Company with Twyla Tharp and Steve Paxton, among others. The Trisha Brown retrospective offered samples from all stages of Brown’s career, including three of her earliest works: Floor of the Forest (1970), Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (1970), and Roof Piece (1971).

Dance Troupe Performs On New York City's High Line Park, 2011. Mario Tama/Getty Images North America.

Even if these works hadn’t been separated out from the rest of the line-up by being performed at museums (the Hammer and the Getty), they are different in that, on the surface, they barely appear to be dance: Man Walking Down the Side of a Building was originally performed by Brown’s husband, who walked straight down the side of a New York apartment building, belayed by rope. Roof Piece involved a group of individual dancers on separate New York rooftops who tried to transmit their movements to the other dancers. And Floor of the Forest is based on the movements of several dancers trying on clothing strung on a grid of ropes, meaning that the dancers dangle from the ropes, along with the clothing.

Are these works performance art or dance? It’s unclear whether anyone’s attempting to demarcate one from the other—one gets the sense that Vito Acconci’s Following Piece (1969) could be called a dance just as much as Simone Forti’s Accompaniment for La Monte’s ‘2 sounds’ (1961) could be called performance art. It all seems to fall so neatly under the umbrella of social sculpture (or relational aesthetics), why bother raising one’s voice?

Trisha Brown Man Walking Down the Side of a Building, 80 Wooster Street, New York, 1970 © Carol Goodden.

Time will tell, but in the meantime, what’s on display (other than a question about the nature of art) is the same upside-down object lesson that Brown’s original pieces bestowed: men and women use props and behaviors from their ordinary lives to mimic these experiences and transform them into extraordinary ones.