Trisha Brown in “Set and Reset” (1983). Performed as a work in progress at Den Nationale Scene, Bergen, Norway, June 8, 1983. Photograph by Trygve Schønfelder, courtesy Trisha Brown Archives.

Set and Reset

Trisha Brown Dance Company revisit “Set and Reset” from 1983

When first developing “Set and Reset” in 1983, Trisha Brown knew that she wanted the work to be a collaboration. Right away, Brown decided she wanted interdisciplinary artist Laurie Anderson to create a score, and being that both were also talented visual artists, Brown figured that they could actually complete the entirety of the work together, covering costumes and set design, as well. This is what she planned to tell her board when first announcing the idea; However, upon their initial meeting, before she could even explain her full plan, Brown’s chairman spoke up: “Who is going to do the set?” Robert Rauschenberg asked. “Well, you are!” Brown replied on a whim.

Returning to the stage for the first time since early 2020, the Trisha Brown Dance Company presented a lecture demonstration of Brown’s “Set and Reset” at the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn, the piece that became an epic collaboration of three heroes of the American avant-garde and Brown’s most popular work. The event included a performance of the full piece by the current company, as well as presentations of photo, video, and audio from the Trisha Brown archive which provided insight into the themes and multi-layered structures of the piece, as well as stories about its inception.

The evening began with this story of Rauschenberg’s spontaneous addition to the project as told by Brown, herself, in a video from one of her lectures. With narration by former Trisha Brown dancer Stacy Matthew Spence, the audience was also granted a look inside Brown and Rauschenberg’s respective notebooks, which were projected on a large backdrop screen. Brown’s notes are wonderful to look at, though relatively unintelligible, with directions for spacing and little sketches of movements. Those shared of Rauschenberg’s notes reveal a real excitement to work with Brown and Anderson, particularly in order to further explore what he describes as their mutual fascination with space.

Trish Oesterling, Carolyn Lucas, David Thomson and Gregory Lara in “Set and Reset” (1983). Photo © 1993 Mark Hanauer, courtesy Trisha Brown Archives

In his set design, Rauschenberg challenged traditional notions of space, particularly the understanding thereof in relation to the proscenium stage. He created three large structures—a rectangular prism and two pyramids—which hung in the back and were covered with silk screen so that stock video could be projected on them. Additionally, he designed wings that had a sheer quality, so that even when dancers were “offstage,” they could still be seen.

Visibility vs. invisibility was another major theme in the development of the work, Brown shares in another video. “The thought that one could stand in the center of the stage and be invisible” was remarkable, she says. Shelly Senter, another Brown Company alum, led us through the ways in which this and other themes play out in the piece, introducing members of the current company who lined up stage left in the wings (ordinary wings, not the Rauschenberg ones; for this lecture demonstration, there was none of the actual set) and demonstrated an opening phrase from the piece. The group moved effortlessly across the stage, using isolation of joints and the weight of the limbs to move in and out of the floor and through the space with ease.

Next, the dancers lined back up “offstage” (though purposefully still visible) as Senter explained the idea of setting and resetting and the improvisation which Brown used in her creative process.

“Trisha gave the dancers five pieces of advice,” Senter described: Lineup, play with visibility and invisibility, travel the edge of the space, act on instinct, and keep it simple. The company members were then tasked to begin improvising movement based off of the previously shown phrase, keeping these five pieces of advice in mind while simultaneously trying to remember what it was they had just created. After a few moments of play, Senter asked the dancers to perform their new phrase. It was an exercise of memory for both dancers, who had to remember their newest steps, and audience, who tried to hold the dancers accountable to what we had previously seen. The dancers cut smoothly in front of each other, entered and exited, faced forward and backward, and bumped into one another, allowing themselves to be dragged, lifted, and spun around by each other. Attempting to maintain the spontaneity of improvisation, they allowed for instinct to kick in while keeping the movement simple enough to be repeated. Senter emphasized that the point of the setting and resetting is not just to repeat the same thing that occurred, but also to “repeat the conditions in which the movement occurred, using the five pieces of advice.” This clarification by Senter provoked a notion of the dance as reaction, rather than simply action.

Trish Oesterling, Trisha Brown and Wil Swanson in “Set and Reset” (1983) Photo © 1993 Mark Hanauer, courtesy Trisha Brown Archives

After a bit more lecture, demonstration, and peeks into the archive, “Set and Reset” was performed all the way through (solely excluding the very opening movement in which a dancer walks across the upstage wall, an ingenious effect created by several dancers holding one gliding dancer horizontally—an allusion to Brown’s 1970 “Man Walking Down the Side of a Building”). In Brown’s signature postmodern style, the six dancers moved so inevitably. They are moving before they have even begun to move, their weight shifting to fall to the left or right, sometimes tumbling all the way to the ground then so easily returning to their feet. In previous clips, Brown describes a use of “pendulum movement,” an acute awareness of the mobility in the joints that allow the arms and legs to swing up and down, side to side, and in circles. We begin to see the dancers as drawing compasses, imagining pencils attached to the ends of their fingers and toes and the designs that are left in the room long after the dancers have transitioned to a new space.

The company is made up of dancers well-seasoned in the Brown repertory and legacy. Particularly outstanding this evening were the fluid Marc Crousillat, who is a Princess Grace and Bessie awardee, among other commendations, and Cecily Campbell, whose stage presence was delightful as she acknowledged her fellow dancers casually with occasional smiles, and moved with a lightness that became powerful in her ability to travel the space, to be caught and lifted by other dancers. 

Campbell nicely exhibited another of Brown’s theories which was relayed through audio excerpt: A lot of dancing comes down to the juxtaposed conditions of being fully present while submitting to a realization that you are not in control. “When all of a person’s person is present at the same moment:” Brown said. “From that moment on, it’s breath, corpuscles, and instinct.”