Film Review: In the Steps of Trisha Brown

This studious documentary provides a behind-the-scenes look at Paris Opera Ballet dancers being taught how to perform the fluid, non-classical movement language of a seminal 1979 work by postmodern choreographer Trisha Brown.
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Ardent fans of the revolutionary postmodern choreographer Trisha Brown may love this documentary, but most viewers, dance cognoscenti included, will probably find In the Steps of Trisha Brown only mildly interesting.

Unobtrusively directed by Marie-Hélène Rebois, who specializes in making films about choreographers, the observant documentary lets us be flies on the dance studio walls of the Paris Opera House as an ensemble of women from the National Paris Opera Ballet prepare to perform Brown’s seminal 1979 work, “Glacial Decoy.” Danced in silence by female bodies clothed in light, transparent white dresses, Brown’s loose, fluid choreography is performed against a background of stark, black-and-white Robert Rauschenberg photographs that depict a depressingly plain and decaying rural America.

We watch the young ballet dancers being put through their paces by Lisa Kraus—who, as a member of the work’s original cast, contributed to the creation of the choreography—and Carolyn Lucas, associate artistic director of the Trisha Brown Dance Company and Brown’s official choreographic assistant for 20 years. The lion’s share of the teaching is done by Kraus, who passionately schools the ballet-trained dancers in the principles underlying Brown’s decidedly non-classical choreography: It’s weightier, freer and more contradictory than what ballet dancers are used to doing. Kraus explains how in Brown’s universe the act of falling or releasing is always a beginning, an impulse that leads to a whole string of other actions. There’s a lot of playing with gravity and an understanding of balance as not static, but rather as the feeling that at any moment you can shift your weight in any direction. If you don’t find the exploration of such ideas fascinating, this is not the film for you.

While at times I felt like I was back in my graduate school Modern Dance Movement Concepts course, it is precisely in those moments that the film is most entertaining. It’s quite fun to “be there” as the young ballerinas giggle with joy upon discovering the new ways of moving and to witness how excited they become when their bodies start to feel comfortable speaking this foreign movement language. Kraus opines that Brown’s work cannot be effectively notated, nor learned from a video recording. It is only through the kind of personal instruction she and Lucas offer—and which this valuable film documents—that Brown’s style can be transmitted to a new generation of dancers. To perform this particular piece of choreography properly, the dancers must also understand how it evolved out of the series of experimental dances Brown created earlier in the 1970s, the most famous involving harnessed dancers walking down or across walls to which they maintained perpendicular alignment. So, at one point, Kraus sits her charges down and lectures them on this history.

In what can feel like union-regulated rehearsal breaks, periodically throughout the documentary we leave the studio to take in gorgeous shots of Parisian streets and skylines, or archival footage of Brown rehearsing and performing. Yet the documentary’s journey only takes us as far as a tech rehearsal. We get to see the dancers run through the choreography onstage in costume, and with the Rauschenberg photos, but then the film ends, abruptly, before opening night. Lacking performance footage, the documentary feels unfinished. A dance film so clearly intending to document a process can’t stop before taking the final step.

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