I started work on Set and Reset, commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in 1983, knowing only that Laurie Anderson would compose the music and that I would reconstruct a solo version of Walking on the Wall (1971) as part of the new piece. I wanted to use my choreographic background as the background for the dance. Walking on the Wall, which was performed at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, consisted of six dancers supported by harnesses, attached by guy wires to an industrial track system installed on the ceiling. The dancers were able to walk, run, or stand still while cantilevered at right angles to the wall. For Set and Reset, we abandoned the heavy equipment. Carrying the single walking figure (Diane Madden) by hand from one side of the stage to the other, we take a small jog around one of the legs (the lengths of fabric that form the stageʼs wings) before disappearing altogether at the start of the dance.
Bob entered the project at this juncture, and his first proposal, before he heard of my plans for the choreography, was to make a living set. The piece was to be performed in other cities in the United States after its premiere in New York, and he suggested that we pick up a small group of people – five or six – at each stop on the tour, and train them to perform various maneuvers and tasks in that corridor of space between the upstage light line and the backstage wall, precisely the space where Diane and those carrying her traveled. This uncanny concurrence of visions separately conceived – my live performer as background and his live action as set – is a frequent reality of our work together.
The notion of the living set was born of Bobʼs ever practical perspective that the company should travel light on the road: no sets, no freight costs. Six performersʼ salaries would be a fraction of such expenses. It also reveals another aspect of the man: he wants to play too. He once said, “If the dance is going to move, I want to move too.” All of Bobʼs sets for my company move, with the exception of If you couldnʼt see me. If a co-art-perpetrator wants to interact with the choreography, she or he has to understand the visual and organizational principles involved. (Three years later, during the emergency creation or a set for Lateral Pass in Naples, I learned exactly how well Bob understood.)
Unbeknownst to Bob, in the next section of Set and Reset, I choreographed a phrase that would trace the periphery of the stage rectangle. I wanted to use that phrase as a conveyor belt to deliver small dances of solos, duets, trios, and so on into the center of the stage. This is not an ordinary idea. The first choreographic pass down the left side of the stage went well, but I got stuck midway across the front stage line, shortly rocking up against this impasse and falling back to try again. Panic. Not wanting to rouse any further the dragon of resistance to my game plan, I defused the situation by saying to myself, “It’s OK. Be patient. You too shall pass.” And eventually I did.
In our collaborations, I was a lightning rod of Bob’s theatrical projections. He described them to me as they occurred to him, often calling in the middle of the night. I would, in turn, picture the descriptions proffered, and in some cases choreograph with the spatial notion of the set he described to me in mind. Inevitably, each new design would be replaced by another, in an elegant procession of visual ideas, until he saw a rehearsal of a piece. At this point, galvanized by what he had assimilated through more systems than just sight, the final design would become manifest.
Bob’s designs for the Set and Reset costumes led to a new development in his art, which he called the Salvage series (1983–85). He explained. “While I was in the process of silk-screening the fabric for the costumes, – my photos of architectural details from streets in New York City – we had to put something under the sheer fabric to catch the excess ink. The chance compositions that were created from the process suggested to me that we should put canvas there. We did; I liked the results. It was rich raw material. I let it develop into what is being recognized as the most recent change in my work.”
From: Trisha Brown, “Cooperation. Life an Death in the Aesthetic Zone” in: Walter Hopps, Susan Davidson (eds.), Robert Rauschenberg. A Retrospective (exh. cat. Guggenheim Museum New York et al.), New York 1997, pp. 268–275, here pp. 270–272.
In the exhibition:
Set and Reset, Version 1, 1985
Costumes: Robert Rauschenberg
Music: Laurie Anderson
Lighting: Beverly Emmons
Dancers: Trisha Brown, Iréne Hultman, Eva Karczag, Diane Madden, Stephen Petronio, Randy Warshaw and Vicky Shick
Produced and directed by Susan Dowling for WGBH New Television
Workshop Videography: James Byrn
© Trisha Brown Dance Company