The Influence

For Paul Selwyn Norton, seeing Trisha Brown’s Set and Reset as a teenager opened up a new world of dance. By Kate Holden.

Paul Selwyn Norton

The Trisha Brown Dance Company performs Set and Reset in 1987, and Paul Selwyn Norton (below).
The Trisha Brown Dance Company performs Set and Reset in 1987, and Paul Selwyn Norton (below).
Credit: Jack Mitchell / Getty Images (above), and Mitchell Aldridge (below)

Paul Selwyn Norton is a dancer, choreographer, teacher and artistic director, and the incoming chief executive and artistic director at The Substation in Melbourne. He was discovered at 23 as a breakdancer and swept into a career in contemporary dance, first with the prestigious Batsheva Dance Company and then William Forsythe’s Ballet Frankfurt. He established No Apology, his own production company, in The Netherlands. He was artistic director at STRUT Dance in Perth for seven years and headed the Junction Arts Festival in Tasmania last year.

He chose to talk about Trisha Brown’s legendary Set and Reset dance production, which premiered in 1983 in New York. A collaboration between musician Laurie Anderson, visual artist Robert Rauschenberg and lighting designer Beverly Emmons, the piece featured eight dancers combining choreography with improvisation.

Was it easy to choose this piece? Is it a standout?

It was literally a portal into a new world. I was 17, nearly 18. I was training to be a doctor, a medic. I was in love with Laurie Anderson as a brilliant, innovative artist. I’d heard she’d written a piece of music for a choreography and was like, “She writes for dance?” I’d never seen live dance before. I was a hip-hopper, so I’d been in that world but never contemporary dance. I thought, “Who’s Trisha Brown?” I didn’t care, literally I went up just to hear this music. The lights go down, the Robert Rauschenberg set descends and out come these incredible dancers. I didn’t understand the mechanics of what I was seeing, I just enjoyed the poetry. And this loose, playful work, almost like atoms bouncing off each other – it was so joyous! Even though I could feel the ferocity of the brain behind it, there was absolute subliminal joy being created on stage. I was completely transfixed by this dance event.

I went back the next night and the next night and just breathed in this way of perceiving the world. I met all the dancers afterwards – met Stephen Petronio, who then went on to become a great artist himself. He said he didn’t start dancing ’til he was 25, and I was this fresh-faced pre-med student going – “Oh my god, you can start dancing when you’re that age?” So I was like, okay, you can be a rogue in this space.

But I was still interested in medicine and the prestige about being a doctor and son of a banker and all that nonsense. So I put it on the backburner. Then before my immunology degree I ran away to Amsterdam and did lots of breakdancing on streets and in clubs and literally got spotted in a discotheque and that’s how I got into the industry. I didn’t train as a professional dancer, I’ve never trained as a dance administrator, I really had this very idiosyncratic way into the whole biz. I thought, “I’ll do it for a year. And it’ll be out of my system.” Stupid! Once you open it all up, once you get to play with your angels and demons in the public realm, it’s very difficult to pack that stuff away.

So, could you describe the work?

Let’s pull the lens a bit wider and talk about where Brown sits in the history of contemporary dance. If you look at ballet, it’s all about the preparation to fly, and to deny that gravity is even present in the room. Trisha Brown completely upended that and said, no, we’re going to use gravity as a mechanism, and actually as our friend. Gravity is not there as a catapult, it’s a place you can use as another form of momentum. She’s considered the matriarch of postmodern dance, or what we call “release technique”.

In traditional ballet, it’s very much your pelvis moves forward, your whole body moves forward. Whereas Trisha Brown made every single articulation of the body a stimulus for movement, how you could engage in space from your wrist, or your hip, or your back shoulder blade. It was decentralising that very rigid picture of what the body represented. That decentralising is extrapolated politically, socially, across all demographics and all art forms.

In Set and Reset there’s a system of movement phrases and they are set within a choreographic framework, but it’s loose: it might drop into systematised choreography, but there’s very much these entrance and exit moments from those shows. It gives dancers agency into the actual pattern of the choreography. Most dancers, you’re told what to do. And here there was an artist going, “Here is a notional phrase or language or space or musicality; now own it and take it somewhere.” That’s revolutionary.

You mentioned the word “rogue”. Did Brown’s originality appeal to you as someone coming up in a conventional world?

I was born in England, raised in Africa and the West Indies, but I was educated in England. From the age of six I was on my own: I had to learn how to be in a large, thriving school full of five, six hundred people. So, ferocious jungle skills: adaptive capacities, and how to read a room, how to find my pathway through it. Those skills gave me a kind of existential confidence, to stand on my own two feet and realise there are idiosyncratic pathways everywhere. You don’t have to follow the prescribed route into anything. I saw Trisha Brown, I was seduced by the choreography, but it was Stephen Petronio who gave me that doorway, and in I went.

I suppose something I inherited from my mother is a kind of fearlessness. I oscillate between the confident rogue and the terrified impostor. You’re on that tightrope: you have to just find your balance in that. I literally have done it since I was a little boy at boarding school, rounding up the troops and getting us all into good trouble. I wasn’t always the leader but I was the one who’d push, and tweak, and pull people together. Now I just have a pay cheque attached to it.

At STRUT, the first big artists that came in were Ohad Naharin and William Forsythe. It was very rogue! We were able to allow that kind of training and repertoire, which is normally quarantined to Sydney Dance Company and The Australian Ballet, to be accessible to independent dancers. Then Punchdrunk, and Hofesh Shechter, and Crystal Pite. That’s how radical it was.

For me now as a contemporary artist, at STRUT, definitely at The Substation, it’s all about giving agency to artists and helping put their vision into the world – taking the agency that was given to me and paying that forward. I find it existentially yummy to be in that space. That’s always been my driving force. I love to give that context or company or artist or star agency, and that’s what Trisha Brown’s work is all about.

My philosophy is, you don’t have to follow the prescribed pathway, ever. You can come in from any direction. If you’re bold, courageous, connected and you have some vision, you can access anything. And now you’ve prompted me to think about it, it’s definitely as a result of seeing that work and thinking, “I’m going to jump through that door like Stephen did! Trisha Brown’s blown my mind, Stephen’s opened the door, I’m going in and let’s see what happens.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 16, 2022 as "Paul Selwyn Nor ton ".

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