|On the Making of Water
a dance by Trisha Brown filmed by Babette Mangolte
was winter 1978 and Soho was still a quiet place mostly habited
by artists who all knew each other and were far from imagining the
commercial mecca that it is now. Walking in the street you met your
friends. And it is what happened on that winter day when by accident
I met Trisha in the street. She told me that she was working on
a new solo and was very happy about it. I proposed to come and see
it and she said: “Come anytime’s. I am doing it every
day. Just call when you are ready”.
In 1978 I was the semi official photographer of the Trisha Brown
dance company and knew her dance vocabulary very well. I knew she
was preparing new work for an evening at the Public Theater on Lafayette
Street where she would be performing for the first time. I was looking
forward to it.
I always like to see what I am going to photograph before the actual
photography session and avoid arriving at the dress rehearsal without
preparation. So one day I went to scout Trisha’s solo at her
loft, curious about the new work. She had named the solo Water
Motor and it was short at about four minutes. I was stunned
when I saw it. Not only was it absolutely thrilling but I also felt
it was an enormous departure from the movement in her previous piece
Locus. Somehow you could hardly see the movement (dance)
because it just went too fast. It was totally new.
It is that strong first impression that the new solo was the beginning
of a new phase in Trisha’s work that triggered in me the desire
to record it on film. Because of the dance sheer bravado and speed
I also felt that the physical abilities of the dancer had to be
so fine-tuned that maybe Trisha would not be able to dance it for
many years to come and therefore the film recording of it was urgent
and should not be delayed. Although Trisha laughed at my fear that
she was not going to be able to perform it for many more years she
agreed that I could film it.
As a filmmaker I knew that dance doesn’t work with cutting
and that an unbroken camera movement was the way to film the four-minute
solo. I had learned it by watching Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly’s
dance numbers. Somehow the film camera has to evoke the hypnotic
look and total concentration of the mesmerized spectator and fragmenting
the solo in small pieces taken from different camera positions would
break the spectator’s concentration and awe.
I also knew that Trisha could dance the solo twice in one day maybe
three times but no more, so in filming it, I had no room for lengthy
rehearsal of the dance to practice my camera work. I had to do well
the first time. So I decided that I would learn the dance and have
it so much in my head and brain that I would follow the dance with
the film camera with no effort on the day of the shooting. I proceed
to do that by going to Trisha’s loft twice a week for about
three weeks so I could learn the dance. It is in the course of that
practice that I did some photographing of the solo and took one
of my best photographs, which I felt was encapsulating what was
so mesmerizing about the movement, a photo where you feel that Trisha
is moving in two contradictory directions at the same time as if
half of her body is going left when the other half is going right.
For the shooting I rented the Merce Cunningham dance studio where
I had a clean background, good floor and a grid with lights. When
I was doing the lights Trisha could warm up and mark the space for
me and for the lights. That took a little less than one hour. Trisha’s
marking the space just indicating the movement permitted me to set
up the camera position and height that I had already conceptualize
while learning the dance in the preceding month during rehearsals.
Then I shot the solo twice and felt that my camera moves were competent
and Trisha was also happy about what she had done in both takes.
I felt that one of the take would be the one to use and I had coverage
in case of a problem that I had not foreseen. Because I was happy
with my camera work I could risk another third take that Trisha
was willing to do. It is then that I took the gamble to shot in
slow motion just to discover the movement in a less impersonal and
more interpretative way. I just wanted to see the movement slow
down to understand it better and but also to see something you can’t
see any other way.
Once I got the footage back Trisha decided with me what was the
best take and also that using the slow motion take was interesting.
My editing consisted in placing very carefully the fade-in from
black and fade-out to black at the beginning and end of the solo
in normal speed and in slow motion. Those fades created an effect
of curtain opening and closing and added a theatrical dimension
to the dance that I felt was important.
The only thing I feel sorry about is that I didn’t have the
money to shoot with sync sound. The solo was silent anyway and performed
with no music. But a silent film does not create the impression
of silence. It is sound film that has created silence in motion
picture. But if I had had a sound sync camera it is likely that
the camera motor would have been only running at sound speed and
therefore I would have been unable to shoot slow motion unless I
had planned it prior to the shoot. That fortunate decision of using
slow motion came on the spur of the moment and I think it is what
makes the film of Water Motor so distinctive, that and
the virtuoso movement, elegance and grace of Trisha Brown.
The best praise came for me when Yvonne Rainer, a close friend
of Trisha, a great choreographer herself and who admired the film
of Water Motor quoted the film in its entirety in one of
her own films. 1
Much later in 2000 at a benefit for the Trisha Brown Dance Company,
where the film was included in the program, Trisha spoke publicly
of the fact that she had accepted reluctantly to be filmed. Although
the solo is still in repertory Trisha dances now a version that
incorporates some of the original movement with another dance “with
talking” and relies on an improvised voice track (often hilariously
funny) and the radio mike used for the voice also transmits the
body movement and breathing of the dancer. Most of the 1978 movement
has disappeared. It isn’t the same dance.
I now think that for a dancer to commit to eternity the way you
moved on a particular day is risky.
1The film is The Man Who Envied Women ©
1985 Yvonne Rainer