Trisha Brown & Lee SerleDance and the art of subversion

Published in October 2010clockTime to read: 4m55s
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For more than three decades, Trisha Brown has dominated the dance firmament like a blazing sun. Not only has she created a series of the most memorable contemporary choreographies, she has also turned dance on its head, breaking rules and crossing boundaries. Those who have had the privilege of working with her have seen their lives transformed. Now Lee Serle, a young dancer from Australia, is thrust – to his delight – into the complex, demanding dance arena that is the Trisha Brown Dance Company.

by Susan Rosenberg October 2010
  • Trisha Brown
    The Mentor
  • Lee Serle
    The Protégé

When Trisha Brown and Lee Serle meet for coffee in New York’s SoHo on a brisk morning in April 2011, Serle is eager to talk to his mentor about her Early Works of the 1970s, choreographies in which he has been performing over the course of his year as her protégé. Recalling this time in her life, 40 years earlier, Brown makes a small gesture. Holding her index finger one inch from her thumb, she tells Serle that when she first presented now legendary works such as Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (1970) and Walking on the Wall (1971), she was “just this big”, or, rather, just “this small”: in other words, she was an artist whose recognition, success and international stature as a choreographer, visual artist and opera director could be neither foreseen nor foretold. Brown’s memories of this time of “freedom and experimentation” to which, she cautions, “it is impossible ever to return”, are meant to inspire her protégé to seize this unique moment in his still early career.

Brown’s fondness for Serle is palpable, as is the playful relationship that the two have developed through their work in the studio and in more casual interactions like the one in the café. Brown leans in towards Serle to ask: “Have you been drawing?” Months before, in a rehearsal at Brown’s studio which he considers as a highlight of the year, she distributed paper, graphite and oilsticks to Serle, a demonstration of her passion for drawing, both for its own sake and because she has made it vital to her exploration of physical ideas in both movement and choreography.

Serle tells Brown that he has made drawings, but he is “too shy to show her the results”. His comment reminds me of how private Brown was, for decades, about her work in this medium – just as their interchange hints at a quality of their relationship that goes beyond their dialogue. In Serle’s presence, Brown compliments him, mentioning personal qualities that she finds endearing: the kindness, sensitivity and modesty that struck Brown when Serle auditioned for the Rolex Arts Initiative in early 2010. His outlook, attitude and composure made it easy for her to envision welcoming his participation behind the scenes, in the Trisha Brown Dance Company.

Serle describes his mentoring year as multifaceted, involving learning, studying and performing Trisha Brown’s repertory – works from the 1970s and the 1990s; but also working with his mentor as she “builds” a new choreography in the studio, and at the same time getting to know her more personally and learning to see New York – SoHo (home to Brown’s studio) in particular – through her eyes.

According to Serle, this experience has re-awakened his sense of amazement and joy in “pure movement”, which dramatically differs from his own choreography or his dedication to performing in the multimedia works presented in the two home-grown dance companies in his native Melbourne in which he has been a member: Lucy Guerin and Chunky Move. Serle will be returning to his work with these and other companies back home, but the completion of the mentorship year is also launching him, in new and exciting ways, into territory that is unfamiliar and unknown.

Extracted from an article written by Susan Rosenberg, for Mentor & Protégé, a magazine documenting the 2010/2011 cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.

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