Trisha Brown, an Aberdeen native who became a renowned choreographer working with artists like John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg, gets a 50-year retrospective at UW’s Meany Hall.

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In midjump, a male dancer appears suspended a few feet off the ground in an explosion of harsh white light. His arms are stretched up at an angle, as if trying to break off his body and fly to the other side of the stage. This brief moment is still burned into my memory from a 1990 Trisha Brown Dance Company performance in San Antonio — if memory serves, it was the Robert Rauschenberg/Trisha Brown collaboration “Astral Convertible” — and marked a major turning point in my understanding of dance as an art form.

At the time, I was a teenager deeply immersed in studying ballet and thought of great dance as a perfect mimicry of learned steps. But that night, Brown’s choreography showed me that dance doesn’t have to tell a story or draw from a generally accepted movement vocabulary to create a strong, emotional performance — there was nothing in particular to “get.”

Trisha Brown was born in Aberdeen in 1936 and, this week, her company will crown five decades of work with its final performance on a traditional stage at University of Washington’s Meany Hall. (The company, which began to shift gears after Brown was diagnosed with vascular dementia, will continue to perform site-specific work in museums, parks and other non-theater spaces.)

Dance preview

UW World Series: Trisha Brown Dance Company

8 p.m. Feb. 4-6, Meany Hall, University of Washington, Seattle; $50-$55 (206-543-4880 or

Brown’s choreography is based in the familiar, flowing movement of the human body — as opposed to the prescribed steps of classical ballet — and speaks to different kinds of audiences, from professional dancers to newcomers.

Those familiar gestures, strongly rooted in geometric shapes and patterns, seem to paint the stage with movement rather than telling a story or setting a particular mood. Brown “uses the stage more like a canvas than as a vehicle for expressing something she was feeling about the world,” says company associate director Carolyn Lucas. A Trisha Brown piece provides a sense of closure as it ends, even when there is no agenda to impart.

This week’s performances will include some of Brown’s iconic works, including her 1970 aerial piece “Man Walking Down the Side of a Building,” in which a dancer, suspended by rope, will stroll down the side of Meany Hall as if walking down the street.

Among other dances, the company will perform “Present Tense,” set to prepared-piano works by John Cage, and “You can see us,” based on a 1994 collaboration with Rauschenberg.

It isn’t unusual for choreographers to collaborate with established artists — but Brown did things a little differently. She and Rauschenberg worked closely on all aspects of their collaboration (dance, lighting, sets) instead of dividing up the elements and handing them off to each other. This creates a far more intimate and integrated effect, where audiences can see the relationship between movement and design in the shadows that dancers’ bodies cast as they move, or how light bounces off the sheen of their costumes.

Theaters and museums around Seattle will present film, conversations and master classes related to Brown’s work (see the UW World Series website for a full schedule) and the company will perform “In Plain Site” — part of their site-specific series that chooses existing Brown choreography for a certain location — at Seattle Art Museum.

Site-specific dance is increasingly popular, and has recently been seen at the Olympic Sculpture Park (by Alice Gosti and Mandy Greer) and Frye Art Museum (by the artistic team Zoe | juniper). By presenting dance as reflective of and immersed in everyday life, Brown has shown a variety of audiences — from the young ballet student to the skeptical arts critic — that dance is as normal as walking down the side of a building.