Trisha Brown and Lee Serle

A year of mentoring

Overview (Chapter 1 of 5)

For more than three decades, Trisha Brown has dominated the dance firmament like a blazing sun. Not only has she created a series of the most memorable contemporary choreographies, she has also turned dance on its head, breaking rules and crossing boundaries. Those who have had the privilege of working with her have seen their lives transformed. Now Lee Serle, a young dancer from Australia, is thrust – to his delight – into the complex, demanding dance arena that is the Trisha Brown Dance Company.

Trisha Brown and Lee Serle

A year of mentoring

First impressions (Chapter 2 of 5)

June 2010

An interview with Lee Serle before the beginning of his mentoring year with Trisha Brown.

At what age did you begin dancing?
I was 11. I began thanks to some friends of mine who went to dance school. They had bring-a-friend day. I was the friend, I went along and that was it. I’ve been dancing ever since.

Was there any moment or any performance that you saw which made you decide to become a professional dancer?
It was gradual, my interest shifted gradually to contemporary dance. Initially I didn’t know much about it. Then, in my teens, I saw performances by the Sydney Dance Company and Chunky Move, which sparked more interest on my part.

Is it difficult to make a living as a freelance dancer?
Initially it was difficult after I finished my studies at VCA [the Victorian College of the Arts, where he took a bachelor of dance degree]. It took time to get the ball rolling. But, in recent years, I’ve got regular work particularly with [Melbourne-based dance companies] Lucy Guerin and Chunky Move. But occasionally I work as an usher at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne to supplement my income.

You’re a tall dancer. Is that an advantage?
I’m 6 foot 3 inches [190cm] tall. It’s more of an advantage for me as it has made me stand out a bit more. For some people, it could be a hindrance. It all depends on what the choreographer is looking for.

You’re a choreographer as well as a dancer.
I’ve recently started branching into choreography, mainly creating short works for emerging artist festivals. It’s something I’m very interested in and want to pursue. I hope there will be a chance to do this in the mentoring year, but I’m not insisting on it. I’m in the beginning stages in choreography.

Lighting, sound effects and other technical effects play a large part in many of the dances you’re involved in. How important are these elements?
Definitely some of the works I’ve been involved in have had a large technical component, which has been integral to the work. This adds an extra layer to the dance. But the aim is always to integrate all elements so they support and inform the other.

Why is dance important to you?
It’s been a part of my life since I was a child. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed, especially the physicality of it. Contemporary dance is interesting because it’s so varied and you work with so many different artists, which keeps it interesting and evolving.

Does Australia have a strong dance culture?
I don’t know if I can speak for the whole of Australia, but Melbourne [where Serle lives] has. There is always something going on and dance has a good following. There is a handful – four or five – strong dance companies, but also many independent choreographers and artists who are creating interesting work.

Did you know much about Trisha Brown before you were invited to apply for the mentorship?
At VCA we covered some of her work in dance history, but I had never seen any of her work live. I had seen footage of her work, and I definitely liked it, especially seeing the development in her work over the years. A lot of techniques I’ve learned came from Trisha Brown as some of the people who taught me have a direct lineage to her.

How would you describe Trisha Brown’s style of choreography?
It’s mainly abstract movement. It can be quite lyrical, but it also uses weighted movement and the body’s natural momentum. Trisha’s work has made a huge contribution to the development of contemporary dance worldwide.

How would you describe your own choreographic style?
It’s quite minimalist and focused, and a lot of it is character-driven.

Where were you when you were informed that you had been chosen as the dance protégé?
I was in Melbourne and frankly, I was amazed. With any big competition, I never think it’s going to happen. You apply and you audition, not with an expectation that you will win. I was overwhelmed when I got the news.

What do you hope to gain from the mentorship?
For me, it’s about broadening my horizons. I’ve been a dancer in Melbourne primarily, so I can branch out and broaden my experience.

How will the mentorship work? Will you dance with Trisha Brown’s company?
There will be a mixture of things, but not everything has been decided yet. There will be times when I learn the repertoire and perform with her company. There will also be one-on-one mentoring with Trisha.

Do you know the music protégé Ben Frost, who is also originally from Melbourne?
He has done sound design for Chunky Move. I know him quite well. Once I heard he had been nominated, I had no doubt he would be chosen as the music protégé. His sound composition is amazing. I have all his albums!

Trisha Brown and Lee Serle

A year of mentoring

First steps with the mentor (Chapter 3 of 5)

October 2010

For Lee Serle, from Melbourne, Australia, the first three months of his mentorship with Trisha Brown, one of the world’s leading names in dance, in New York, have been principally a personal and human interchange, not focused solely on choreography and dance. The experience is not easily packaged in formula or hype, which he is quick to say is anathema to his sensibility as an artist.

Serle's quiet confidence, poise and humour provide cover for a fiercely analytical intelligence. In this recent interview with art curator and historian Susan Rosenberg, he speaks about the importance of the arts in general; his mentor and the experience of performing her works; and living in New York.

Overflowing with precise observations about Brown's work and his recent performance experiences, Serle looks forward to developing a new solo choreography.

What is it like to live and dance in New York?
I have always had a fascination with New York. I first came here to perform in 2005, and have travelled here almost every year since. Having visited five or six times before was quite handy: I had already experienced many different neighbourhoods of the city before I moved here to begin the Rolex Mentorship in August 2010.

It sounds like it has been an easy adjustment. Have the rhythms and routines of your life changed a lot since your arrival?
It hasn’t been a big move for me. I’m not a “rush around” person. I’m happy if I have a day at home. I don’t have a constant need to be out exploring, seeing, doing. There is a huge difference between living a busy life and leading a rich life. First of all, it’s necessary to know the difference.

What’s on your current New York “to see/do list”?
Most of what I have been seeing so far is dance and visual art, not so much music, which was a big interest of mine when in Melbourne. What I want to do in New York is see more theatre.

Since theatricality is something I include in my own work, being in New York is a great opportunity. Being educated in dance is not enough to be an interesting creator and artist.

What happened during your recent tour to Europe with the Company, and then when you performed at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York?
I performed in some of [Trisha Brown’s] Early Works when the company toured to Lyons, France, in September, but it was particularly exciting to perform in New York. Travelling here with Australian companies to perform is very different from performing the work of a New York-based artist in New York.

When I performed here in the past, the majority of the New York audiences were seeing the work for the first time. People here have knowledge of The Trisha Brown Dance Company’s history, so there was great excitement and respect for her and for these works.

Performing at the Whitney was truly an event – the fact that the performances were presented at the Whitney Museum 40 years after their first showing. There was so much buzz and it was thrilling to be part of the history of Trisha’s work. Being of my generation and being from Australia – so far away – it was incredible be involved with a project like this, including seeing Stephen [Petronio] and Elizabeth [Streb] stop traffic when they performed Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (1970).

What are the challenges in performing the Early Works?
What’s wonderful about performing the Early Works is that you are given a lot of freedom within each of them. Although there are some rules, it’s not disastrous if you break a couple of them occasionally.

And each work gives you the freedom to explore within the guidelines of what each work is investigating. That is what is interesting to me as a performer. But if you push it too far, you lose the initial intention – the relationship between the task and what it’s supposed to display to the audience.

It’s also wonderfully casual. When you are in a gallery space and you’re moving around and the audience is moving around, it’s more like an informal showing, and you feel more freedom. You don’t have to put on airs, so it’s very different from the proscenium context.

Was it difficult performing in Walking on the Wall at the Whitney Museum – one of Trisha Brown’s most famous Early Works in which dancers in harnesses move along a wall?
At first it was daunting to get up on the wall. We had one private rehearsal and one rehearsal where there was an invited audience – which meant, essentially that our second rehearsal was a performance. I didn’t know how difficult it would be – having never before experienced being horizontal to the ground. It was just a matter of stepping onto the wall – having a go to try it out. The harness, a half-vest, was very secure and then it was a matter of feeling the force of pushing off the wall.

There is a daredevil quality to all of the Early Works we performed. All are about taking an element of risk to its limit. What’s exciting and still relevant about the work is its unpredictability.

It can work perfectly well, but in a way that’s not as exciting as when something goes wrong: it conveys the message to the audience that this isn’t easy. I think dancers can make the works look easy, but to execute everything perfectly is counterproductive in displaying the exercise, the works’ concepts.

Has learning Trisha Brown’s movement language brought surprises?
In many ways, the movement does feel familiar and natural to me, based on my previous knowledge of it and my training. Being here and experiencing Trisha’s work has made me appreciate the mechanics of the body, and to become more interested in moving.

A lot of dancers question the importance of dance. I’ve had periods – it is a common story for a lot of dancers – where interest in dance itself wanes, and one thinks: “Who cares? – it’s just dance; I’m not saving lives.” This is one of the most important things that has changed for me since being here. For a long time I avoided seeing pure dance performances, because I felt I had seen it before. Working with Trisha’s company I have been drawn back to “pure movement”. To the intelligence and beauty of it – and how incredible dance can be.

Can you describe your contact with Trisha Brown?
On our first meeting this summer, Trisha walked me around SoHo [New York], talking about what it was like when she first moved there – and what a difference there is between then and now. Trisha is very playful and has a great sense of humour. At a formal dinner in Lyons recently, a journalist documenting the event asked her: “Why did you choose Lee to be your protégé?” And she said, “Because I’m almost as tall as he is!” [Serle is 190cm tall.] What has been enjoyable is that Trisha likes to talk about many different things – not just choreography and dance: she is a great storyteller. Most recently we met to discuss a lecture we are presenting together when the company is in London next week to perform the Early Works program at Tate Modern.

What lies in the immediate future in the mentorship?
In November Trisha plans to start building a new choreography. The Company will be on tour so I anticipate being in the studio with [company dancers] Diane Madden and Carolyn Lucas. I am very excited about this.

I have spoken with the company dancers about it, so I know there will be a lot of improvising involved – directed improvisation. That is a process I am familiar with – for example I have worked with choreographers who use task instructions to generate improvisation while making a work, but Trisha’s unique process, how she works is still a mystery to me.

Do you have plans to choreograph in the next few months?
I’ve been ticking over in my head ideas about the next work I want to make. I am very excited about working on my own choreography and presenting it to Trisha, to get her perspective while I am developing a new piece. After I performed my solo for her, during my audition for the Rolex Arts Initiative last February, I assumed Trisha enjoyed the piece: she responded by mimicking some of the facial gestures that I make as part of this choreography. When we talked about making work, in this informal interview, I told her I had made that solo two years before, but that as a free-lance dancer I was finding it difficult to make time to create something new. Her response was direct: “Well, you need to make the time.” I would like to find a residency here [after the mentoring year] – space and time to focus on choreographing.

Trisha Brown and Lee Serle

A year of mentoring

Dance and the art of subversion (Chapter 4 of 5)

When Trisha Brown and Lee Serle meet for coffee in New York’s SoHo on a brisk morning in April 2011, Serle is eager to talk to his mentor about herEarly Works of the 1970s, choreographies in which he has been performing over the course of his year as her protégé. Recalling this time in her life, 40 years earlier, Brown makes a small gesture. Holding her index finger one inch from her thumb, she tells Serle that when she first presented now legendary works such asMan Walking Down the Side of a Building(1970) andWalking on the Wall(1971), she was “just this big”, or, rather, just “this small”: in other words, she was an artist whose recognition, success and international stature as a choreographer, visual artist and opera director could be neither foreseen nor foretold. Brown’s memories of this time of “freedom and experimentation” to which, she cautions, “it is impossible ever to return”, are meant to inspire her protégé to seize this unique moment in his still early career.

Brown’s fondness for Serle is palpable, as is the playful relationship that the two have developed through their work in the studio and in more casual interactions like the one in the café. Brown leans in towards Serle to ask: “Have you been drawing?” Months before, in a rehearsal at Brown’s studio which he considers as a highlight of the year, she distributed paper, graphite and oilsticks to Serle, a demonstration of her passion for drawing, both for its own sake and because she has made it vital to her exploration of physical ideas in both movement and choreography.

Serle tells Brown that he has made drawings, but he is “too shy to show her the results”. His comment reminds me of how private Brown was, for decades, about her work in this medium – just as their interchange hints at a quality of their relationship that goes beyond their dialogue. In Serle’s presence, Brown compliments him, mentioning personal qualities that she finds endearing: the kindness, sensitivity and modesty that struck Brown when Serle auditioned for the Rolex Arts Initiative in early 2010. His outlook, attitude and composure made it easy for her to envision welcoming his participation behind the scenes, in the Trisha Brown Dance Company.

Serle describes his mentoring year as multifaceted, involving learning, studying and performing Trisha Brown’s repertory – works from the 1970s and the 1990s; but also working with his mentor as she “builds” a new choreography in the studio, and at the same time getting to know her more personally and learning to see New York – SoHo (home to Brown’s studio) in particular – through her eyes.

According to Serle, this experience has re-awakened his sense of amazement and joy in “pure movement”, which dramatically differs from his own choreography or his dedication to performing in the multimedia works presented in the two home-grown dance companies in his native Melbourne in which he has been a member: Lucy Guerin and Chunky Move. Serle will be returning to his work with these and other companies back home, but the completion of the mentorship year is also launching him, in new and exciting ways, into territory that is unfamiliar and unknown.

Extracted from an article written by Susan Rosenberg, forMentor & Protégé,a magazine documenting the 2010/2011 cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.

Trisha Brown and Lee Serle

A year of mentoring

After a year with a master (Chapter 5 of 5)

Lee Serle talks about his year as a Rolex protégé

How would you describe your mentoring year with Trisha Brown?
It’s been like three experiences really – learning about Trisha through her work and being in the company structure; and then encountering Trisha in a more personal and casual way. And I have been mentored by the Trisha Brown Dance Company as a whole.

What is it like to be in the studio with Trisha Brown when she is building a new choreography?
The choreographers that I’ve worked for in the past have either choreographed a movement “on” the dancers – or set a task [for the dancers to perform]. Working with Trisha, we have spent five weeks of straight-up creating movement in the studio. This is unlike any other experience I have had with a choreographer making new work.

Why was this significant?
I loved the experience of creating movement and exploring. It was kind of an exploration of how you move; what looks aesthetically pleasing; and what feels good – which is not always the case when you are creating movement! Working with Trisha and her company to build new movement material, you discover your habits – what your known movements are – and then you work to offset that, to make new discoveries. Any time you create movement, you are trying to create something that is unknown or different – so you are not recreating something you already know. This was an important developmental stage in my experience because I was pushed to extend myself beyond what I thought I could do.

What is Trisha Brown like as a person?
Trisha is a very generous and kind-hearted woman, and has a great sense of humour. We have spent quite a bit of time together in the studio this year, so we have had most of our interactions creatively working together.

What has been most important about this mentoring year for you?
Having the opportunity to learn from Trisha Brown and be part of her company for this mentoring year has been incredibly enriching artistically and personally. I feel so inspired by Trisha’s work and by New York City. There have been many incredible moments for me, but two that I remember most fondly are drawing with Trisha in the studio during one of my first rehearsals and walking on the walls of the Whitney Museum. Both inspiring and a lot of fun!