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  • Trisha Brown's L'Orfeo:Postmodern Meets Baroque
  • Guillaume Bernardi (bio)

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Figure 1.

Trisha Brown, rehearsal notes for the prologue of L'Orfeo. Notebook. Trisha Brown Private Collection.

American choreographer Trisha Brown's first directorial venture into the world of opera in 1998 was a memorable success. The artistic director of the Théâtre Royal de La Monnaie in Brussels, Bernard Foccroulle, was quite daring when he asked the abstract choreographer to direct Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, but his gamble paid off: over the last ten years, Brown's production has been widely toured, repeatedly revived, and is now available on DVD.1 Commentators have often noted its great success but they also have underlined its enigmatic quality. Noted designer Roland Aeschlimann certainly contributed to the staging's hypnotic effect on audiences by imagining the minimalist, bleached world in which the action takes place. Ultimately, though, the defining feature of the production was the striking movement—halfway between dance and theater—that Brown devised for the performers. A study of a page of Brown's notebooks (fig. 1) might lead us to a deeper understanding of the qualities of her work on L'Orfeo and of her distinctive creative process.

Anyone working with Trisha Brown has at one point or another marveled at her notebooks.2 These heavy, dark, bound volumes are never far from the choreographer's chair in the studio. They reveal a clear, sparse world, elegant and brainy at the same time. The sketches shown here were made in Philadelphia (note "Philly" at the top of the right page) in February 1998, when Brown and her team were completing a series of work sessions at the rehearsal facilities of Flying by Foy, a company that specializes in theatrical flights. The drawings refer to the allegorical prologue of L'Orfeo, in which Music directly addresses the audience, inviting them to the performance that follows. In Brown's production, La Musica appeared in flight through a circular opening in a solid screen that filled the proscenium arch. A dancer embodied the mythical figure, while the singer was hidden in the pit (fig. 2).

Brown's use of a dancer suspended in midair unmistakably echoes a series of important performance pieces that she inaugurated in 1970 with "Man Walking [End Page 287]

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Figure 2.

L'Orfeo: Prologue. Choreography: Trisha Brown; set and costume design: Roland Aeschlimann; dancer: Diane Madden; conductor: René Jacobs. The singer, Juanita Lascarro, is barely visible in the pit. Photo: Johan Jacobs.

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Figure 3.

"Man Walking Down the Side of a Building" (1970). Choreography: Trisha Brown. Photo: Carol Goodden.

[End Page 288]

Down on the Side of a Building" (fig. 3).3 Those pieces explored daily ordinary actions (walking, for instance) performed in extraordinary contexts. Beneath the added layers of narrative, costume, and lighting, the expert eye recognizes that the movement vocabulary of the dancer performing La Musica in L'Orfeo is related to Brown's earlier experiments (fig. 4). The division of the part of La Musica into a dancer and a singer should also be interpreted as more than a mere trick to circumvent the physical limitations of singers; it squarely positions Brown's production within the realm of experimental theater. The radical step of disembodying the voice (the dancer did not mouth the sung words) at the very start of the opera immediately takes the spectator into another theatrical dimension. The opening sequence introduces the audience to a set of innovative performance rules, far from those of traditional opera productions. Clearly, the singing is not a mere accompaniment to the dance. The question therefore is how those two components are connected.

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Figure 4.

L'Orfeo: La Musica operates the transition between acts 4 and 5. Choreography: Trisha Brown; set and costume design: Roland Aeschlimann; dancer: Diane Madden. Photo: Johan Jacobs.

Brown's notebook—specifically the drawings at the bottom of the page—provides some answers. They record a close to final version of the sequence of traveling movements that the dancer performs during the prologue, as...


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