Sitting with…Trisha Brown’s ‘Watermotor’ (1978)

In the last few years I have been pondering what it means for a dance-maker to walk into a space on their own and choreograph a dance on themself, to be performed by themself. I wonder about the techniques we bring to bear on our solitary work, the ways we practice and the motivations that compel this self-determination. My question: ‘what does it mean to self-choreograph?’ aims to capture the more-than of the dance’s creation, its significance beyond its own making, even when its making appears insignificant. My research has become an endless practice of ‘sitting-with’ in the (for the most part) unknowingness of what’s there. And so here I’m extending this practice by ‘sitting-with’ a distinct work that might illuminate my personal enquiry. In the spirit of this open-ended sitting, I am not offering these thoughts as a historical or analytical investigation. My ponderings are textured by my current thinking and practice. When I sit-with a work, I’m not trying to ‘know’ it, I’m mostly allowing it to speak in its own space/place/time and acknowledge/ bring to light the dialogue that I’m having with it.

Part of this dialogue is knowing where the work is sitting in relation to me. A chance ‘share’ of Watermotor on facebook, reminded me of this. Amongst the adverts of Facebook attempting to sell me ‘smart oven gloves’ (don’t ask…), Trisha Brown’s youthful dancing, captured in Babette Mangolte’s 1978 filming of Watermotor, bound me to the screen. It’s a weekday morning and I’m supposed to be ‘being productive’ with a reading of Erin Manning, but instead I’m trapped down this rabbit hole searching through link after link to remind myself of the back-story, or, as academics like to call it, the context of its making. I learn from Trisha Brown’s company website that whilst they list the work as ‘Water Motor’, Mangolte’s film writes it as Watermotor. Both, it says, are acceptable. And this makes me think of the ways that works, and the ways we talk about them, can never be fully pinned to any original form. I settle on using ‘Watermotor’ feeling the drive of the dance rushing through one word into the other, too impatient to wait for one to end for the other to begin. A liquid train. 

Watermotor is listed both as a dance and as a dance film created by Mangolte, which confuses me at first. Wasn’t Mangolte’s filming a record of the dance? A documentation? I’m not sure if it matters. As I watch through the film, I feel drawn into the very space. It’s candid, unadulterated. I could be sitting there. Commentators have applauded Mangolte’s ability to allow the dance to be, to ‘trust dance’s capacity to create its own story’ (Crimp, 2011). I learn that the filming took place at the Merce Cunningham Studios which must have been evident to the dancers of the time who were familiar with those spaces. I think how familiar this scenario is, and how many of our current day works ‘live’ as records against the familiar stomping grounds of our profession. I think at some point the ‘recognisability’ of Chisenhale’s studios became concerning enough for them to ask artists using their spaces for filming to first seek permission…     

Mangolte describes her ‘chance’ meeting with Brown that led to the creation of this film (Mangolte, 2017). She explains how Brown was working on the piece in her loft apartment, chiming with the working-from-home situation that we are now very familiar with thanks to the pandemic. In some ways (my thinking drifts) this pandemic has been good for many of us, forcing us to make space for our work in our homes and local parks, as opposed to relying on studio spaces. When did we allow our work to become so dependent on the dance studio? My loft being considerably smaller and somewhat precarious to get to, I was consigned, in the early days of the pandemic, to working in the porous space that is my living room. I remember finding it incredibly frustrating to work with the sounds of everyone else around me. Still, I counted myself lucky that I had the space that I had, which reminds me that space itself is such an important resource for the dance-maker, and one that often excludes many makers from making. 

I imagine Brown working through her dance, or is it dancing? As I watch her free-flowing movement, both direct and open, driving forwards in multiple simultaneous directions, I’m drawn by how un-choreographed both her movement, and the dance, appear. Her very flesh seems buoyant, un-held and yet somehow contained by the skin of her dance. It seems almost formless, multiple, both simple and complex. I come across Susan Rosenberg’s description, echoed in many other descriptions of Brown’s dancing, which aptly captures my thoughts: 

Water Motor,…, demonstrates its originator’s idiosyncratic virtuosity and unprecedented physical intelligence: her relaxed, direct ability to activate movement and energy, as if out of nowhere, and to access her dancing’s jouissance as choreography. (Rosenberg, 2012, p.153)

I cannot imagine remembering it. Did she work through accumulations? Did she film herself improvising and then re-learn it? (Unlikely…) I imagine her following her movement, noticing, repeating, interjecting it, (incidentally, all practices I now associate with the process of self-choreography). Of course I have no idea how she went about choreographing it, I can only imagine her letting rip and then attempting to capture her dancing, without taming it. The choreographer driving through whilst the dancer danced? Rosenberg sounds like an authority on the dance as she chimes in with more back-story: the dance recalled a physical trauma that Brown had experienced. But whether this was the active intention of the dance, or whether it arose from/through her dancing is unknown?     

One thing I am aware of: it would be wrong to think of Brown’s dancing as ‘free’. Much like the controversy surrounding any form of improvisation as ‘free’, (or any kind of movement, for that matter…) Brown’s style was itself a practice, a technique. Again Rosenberg refers to this in reminding us of the body/mind practices that Brown engaged with at the time. 

When I watch these seminal works from the era that redefined the notion of dance virtuosity, I cannot help imagining my old ballet teacher watching. I think she might gawk at the lack of ‘finesse’, the lack of ‘lines’, the lack of anything resembling her notion of ‘technique’. ‘This is just free falling, free dancing’ I imagine her saying, unimpressed. And perhaps those words are just my own, my old training still creeping in, still offended by the freshness of this dancing. If I were to dance this work, I think, I would find it impossible to let go of all that baggage, partly because my flesh is so stubbornly bound to my bones, and partly because I am stubborn too! 

And then there comes the question of the choreography… where is it? Again Rosenberg agrees: the choreography ‘appear[s] to disappear’ in the dancing (2012, p.152). Is this, then, a piece of dancing, or a piece of choreography? How much of her own baggage did Brown have to off-load to allow this dance to be, to emerge? The most striking thing to me is her ability to allow it, to recognise it and to be with/in it.      

As I watch Brown’s dance, captured by Mangolte in 1978, and flicking across my screen here in 2022, my mind, full of Erin Manning’s writings, cannot help but invite them into this sitting too. They pull up a chair. (I’m not an expert on Manning so I don’t pretend that she is sitting with me, but my memory of her words are). Manning describes movement’s preacceleration: ‘like the breath that releases speech, the gathering-toward that leaps our bodies into a future unknowable’ (Manning, 2009, p. 25). She argues against the notion of ‘body’ as ‘subject’ and instead describes the ‘becoming-body’: ‘a body that is involved in a reciprocal reaching-toward that in-gathers the world even as it worlds.’ (Ibid. p.6). Manning’s words, whilst not specifically directed at Brown’s dancing in Watermotor, sum up that sense of being in the moment of moving-with, never arriving, never known, always in-relation that capture the spirit of self-choreographing. Something about movement being so close to its maker/ originator that it almost remains unknown. It has to be ‘captured’ in some way, like this work captured by Mangolte on a winter’s day in 1978.

References:

Brown, T.(.). (2011) Watermotor 24 Images.

Crimp, D. (2011) You Can Still See Her:  The art of Trisha Brown. Available at: https://www.artforum.com/print/201101/you-can-still-see-her-the-art-of-trisha-brown-27046 (Accessed: 31 January 2022).

Mangolte, B. (2017) The Making of Water Motor. Available at: https://www.babettemangolte.org/maps2.html (Accessed: 31 January 2022).

Manning, E. (2009) Relationscapes. Cambridge, Mass. [u.a.]: MIT Press.

Rosenberg, S. (2012) ‘Trisha Brown’s Water Motor: Forever, Now, and Again’, TDR : Drama review, 56(1), pp. 150-157. doi: 10.1162/DRAM_a_00150.

Taylor, R. (2010) Trisha Brown Water Motor. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/mangolte-trisha-brown-water-motor-t14764 (Accessed: 31 January 2022).

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