In 1971, a man walked down the side of an eight-story building on Wooster Street. Striding along with the aid of a mountaineering harness, horizontal to the sidewalk, he was performing a dance piece by then fledgling choreographer Trisha Brown. Except that the piece had no narrative, no gesture, no “dance.” It was a disruption in the dance world, a revolution. This weekend, the Whitney Museum of American Art resurrects Man Walking Down the Side of a Building–at (and on) its iconic Marcel Breuer headquarters.
The 40th anniversary of the Trisha Brown Dance Company finds the choreographer’s company re-staging long-dusty parts of her repertory all over town: at the Whitney, the Museum of Modern Art and on the rooftops of New York City. But of these performances, the Whitney’s “Off The Wall Part II: Seven Works by Trisha Brown,” starting this week and running through Oct. 3, will showcase the broadest assortment of work; the installations combine sound, performance and video, some of which has not been performed in decades. What, exactly, does it look like? Think dancers crawling, running, leaning, falling, writing, drawing on the floor or performing a striptease behind the transparent glass of a Marcel Duchamp. “We are letting Trisha inhabit the museum in a way that is much more expansive than a 7 o’clock performance,” said the Whitney’s adjunct curator of performing arts, Limor Tomer.
The Whitney, surprisingly perhaps, has showcased experimental dance performances before, most notably from Ms. Brown, Deborah Hay and Merce Cunningham. One of the Brown pieces, Walking on the Walls, was born on the walls of the Whitney, and the distinct roles that both the museum and choreographer have played in the history of performance are being reprised together. “I am looking forward to going back through time and seeing the early works at the Whitney,” said Ms. Brown, now in her 70s, in an email. “This museum is part of my past, an important part of me.”
Ms. Brown was a founding member of the Judson Dance Theater, the informal group that pioneered postmodern dance in the ’60s. She became to postmodern dance something like Max Planck to quantum mechanics–it would have happened without her, but it might have looked quite different. She took pedestrian movement further than her peers in choreography, sometimes climbing up the wall in the process. In the ’80s, she collaborated with Robert Rauschenberg and Laurie Anderson.
Most anticipated in the “Off the Wall” exhibition is Ms. Brown’s 1970 work Man Walking Down the Side…, performed this time by a woman. Ms. Brown’s description of the piece: “Gravity reneged. Vast scale. Clear order. You start at the top, walk straight down, stop at the bottom.” So, dancer Elizabeth Streb will stride down the exterior of the Whitney on 75th Street at 5 p.m. on Friday, and Sunday at 1:30 and 5 p.m. (A well-known male dancer, Stephen Petronio, will also perform it at other times. The piece will be visible from Madison Avenue, and no admission is required.) Ms. Streb, who keeps a photo of the original piece on her desk at home, said she’s honored to do it. “I would do anything Trisha told me to,” she said. The first time she saw the piece, “I was 20. [Afterward] you had to sit in a room and think, ‘How can I possibly make a move after this?’”
Walking on the Walls, performed at the Whitney in 1971, was an indoor version of that site-specific piece, brought into the museum as if to inaugurate the addition of postmodern dance to the canon. Many fans of Ms. Brown have only seen this and other groundbreaking work of hers in videos and still photos. Never performed again since its premiere, Walking will be redone in the original Breuer space seven times during the four-day exhibition. (At the Whitney this week is the second part of a two-part show; part one was curated by Chrissie Iles.)
Curator Ms. Tomer said that Ms. Streb’s performance “is like closing the circle … a vindication.” Putting together the exhibition, she found the piece “as radical and fresh as it was 40 years ago.” Rehearsal director Dianne Madden, who has been with the company for more than 20 years, had not worked with much of the material before and said she was surprised by its range. “There is a piece that is just a soundscape, there is a piece to Bob Dylan, to the Grateful Dead. There are pieces in silence. There’s humor.” She said she believes the exhibition is more than a reprise of groundbreaking performance. “It will reveal something about where we are now in dance,” she said.