José Brown: Arte Povera

Louise Steinman

José Brown died in Portland, Oregon on May 1, 1996, of AIDS. He was a professional dancer, choreographer, and teacher. He attended Reed College for two years then transferred to the California Institute of the Arts where he majored in dance. He has danced in the New York companies of Pearl Lang, Kei Takei's “Moving Earth,” and Rudy Perez and Rael Lamb's Dance for a New World. As director of his own company, “Changing Dance Theatre,” he choreographed and performed in New York, Japan, Denmark, Spain, Italy, and Greece. His last work in Copenhagen was “King Lear,” translated by novelist Peter Hoeg and performed in the National Museum. In Tokyo he performed in the Noh Theater of Hideo Kanse, and in New York his choreography was seen at Hundred Grand, P.S. 122, The Merce Cunningham Studio, La Mama Theatre, and St. Mark's Church, where his production “Satyricon 2000” was performed. (From an obituary in REED Magazine)

As you watch the video of “Soldiers,” José Brown's last dance performance, it won't occur to you that you are watching someone who is gravely ill, who will be dead in a scant year's time. Instead, you'll be mesmerized by the fluidity of his movements, his stamina. The clarity of his focus.You'll marvel at his exuberantly eclectic dance vocabulary: Japanese Butoh, Afro-Haitian, Kathakali, Martha Graham. The music he dances to is as varied as his moves: from Bach's Brandenburgs to Phillip Glass' Satyagraha to Sam Cooke's tender “Bring It on Home to Me.” In my favorite section, José — dressed in white dress shirt and pleated slacks — dances ruminatively to T.S. Eliot reading “The Wasteland.” It's an urbane interpretation, rendered with the restraint of a mature dancer.

José was an inspiring colleague in the Portland, Oregon dance scene of the late seventies. In 1977, then a fledgling dance writer, I wrote a review of one of his solo performances for the (now-defunct) Portland Scribe. The piece ends, “He begins a demonic counting of an eight-beat phrase, pushing himself almost into a frenzy. Up into the air and down again — sometimes he doesn't even land on his feet. I wonder, how many lives does José Brown have, anyway?”

Dance is an ephemeral art. When the dancer/choreographer vanishes, what remains is the memory of the dancer, the memory of the dance. Since I began work on this article, interviewing some of his friends, reading his journals and letters, viewing videotapes of him dancing — I have been inspired and saddened, exasperated, elated, and amazed. Most of all, I have been haunted by the question, “What if?” As his beloved teacher Judy Massee put it, “José was really thinking about Big Things all the time. All the time. What if? What if some angel had really come with some big foundation grant? What if there had been a MacArthur grant for José?”

Program notes to Brown's last performance
The title of this program, “Soldiers,” was suggested to me by casting the I Ching. Soldiers at their worst are murderers and despots, and at their best they are defenders and liberators. In either case, a soldier risks his/her life in combat. Even a nonviolent soldier.

My dance and my life are one. This program is improvised solo dancing. I would like to offer a program of choreography and dancers, but my economic condition prohibits this.

Coincidentally, I am Black, Gay, Native American, and HIV positive. Technically I have AIDS as my T 4 cell count is 9. I have been HIV positive for over eleven years. I do not expect to die of AIDS but I have come close to dying of poverty. Poverty is the greatest danger to our nation and to the world. Political organization is the only way to power. I am too independent to stay in an organization. Religion has always been my support. I cannot give my faith a name any more than I can describe my dance in one word.

I dedicate this program to Judith Massee because she has remained my friend and encouragement and because of the significant contributions she has made to the world of dance.

Brown's own writing and the memories shared by his friends sketch a portrait — though incomplete — of a brilliant artist who is “coincidentally Black, Gay, Native American, HIV positive,” and who is also desperately poor in late twentieth century America. We can view José's life as both a bold adventure and a cautionary tale. He was an accomplished professional whose path embraced contradictions. He was ambitious and impractical, foolhardy and wise, humble and imperious. He risked enormous discomfort and insecurity to practice his art. It may well be that he didn't have a choice. As he said it himself, his dance and his life were one.

Akemi Masaki, a choreographer and dancer, first saw Brown dance in 1975 in Tokyo.
I was struck by his passion. Technique is very important but passion is more important. He had power and he knew how to control it. His movement was like “ice skating.” No one in Japan had ever seen anyone move like that. He danced to Michael Jackson music. A three-year old brought him flowers. He danced with her in his arms. He was a “sensation” in Tokyo.

George Cummings, Reed outdoor instructor: Cummings' first memory of Brown was in the Reed Commons.
He got up and started to dance. He was so fluid and beautiful. I was entranced. I was just fascinated watching him. So fluid and elegant. Young and vital.

He was always running. He was moving so quickly. He hardly slept. Just two to three hours. It made me think he would have a short life. He lived dance.

Brown was born in Gary, Indiana, a blue-collar steel town, and went to Reed on a scholarship. His father died when he was seven, leaving him alone with his mother. Their relationship was never easy. “He was very lonely as child,” says Masaki. His mother refused to accept that her son was gay. Among Brown's spiritual, aesthetic, and political mentors were Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, Bergman, Fellini, and Marcus Garvey.

José Brown, letter, 1987, to his mother
My experience is unique as the life of every person is unique. But my experiences are most closely related to mystics, visionaries, religious people. Nothing I have ever done by choice has ever been done halfheartedly. Nothing that I have ever studied have I studied lightly. And all that I have observed has affected me. I have been around the world twice and lived since age 17 on my own with contributions of less than $1,000, mostly from friends toward transportation for which they directly benefited. I have not received support through marriage, through inheritance, nor through insurance, nor social security checks. And I have worked and I have managed to meet people. I have not collected suits, apartments, cars, and credit cards. That is not what motivates me. And I do give generously money, time, energy, and love. Also expertise, skills, and more.

Your view of the world is not radical. Most of the people you have ever known and will know think as you do. Imagine how I felt as I grew older and realized I did not think, feel, believe as anyone else did that I knew.

You wanted to join the Navy to become a nurse. Your mother would not let you. That altered your life. You got married once, twice, you gave birth to me. That altered your life. Your husband died, that altered your life. The choices you had as a woman, a black poor woman were limited in Chicago in 1946. You did your best but inevitably once you chose a path you were not so free to leave it. You have held a job as a nursing assistant which supported you and your child. I was a hindrance to you, a burden.... I do not know the names of my grandparents except for your mother. I never see my cousins. I hardly saw you. I was probably a sissy, though I did not know it. I am gay now. I do not feel bad to be gay. In fact being in New York is good therapy. I never knew how many black gay men there are. Half of the gay population I see here — and that is large — are black men.

...The economic condition of the black dancer and dance company has improved some with dance in general, but it is far below good. It is impoverished now in 1987. Only the very top ballet dancers and top choreographers and those in top commercial work earn enough to be middle class. Maybe 20 people. The rest are supported by family, by marriage or inheritance and foundations. You do not have artist and intellectual friends. You know the “success stories.” The others you assume are failures. But look at jazz artists and remember their histories. I am not a drug addict nor an alcoholic and not really a religious fanatic. No one who knows me thinks that. I have incredible loyalty to friends.

Indeed, Brown had incredible loyalty to friends and they to him. Living as he often did, from hand to mouth, “the kindness of friends” bailed him out more than once. They loaned him money. He slept on the floors of their apartments. He did his share of menial jobs — dishwashing and clerking, telephone jobs, ushering at the Public Theater in New York. Homelessness was not just a fear, but often a reality.

Judy Massee first saw Brown in the Reed dance studio. They kept up a correspondence over the years, and she invited José back to Reed several times to teach workshops.

Judy Massee
He was beyond waiting tables. He needed an angel. He had a constant fear of being homeless. It's a shame how dancers who are independent choreographers are treated in this country.

Brown, journal entry, 1988
Last dollar buying a bad coffee in a bad coffee shop, 6th and 14th street sitting on a tiny uncomfortable stool. No place to live. No options. Ridiculous but true. Must leave New York, but I have four performances scheduled. I have classes scheduled too but... April — cold still — something not correct. A struggle. What do I do next? I have a job in Berlin in June What do I do here? I must have an answer. I cannot move. Hitchhike — where? Fight. How? What action?

Brown, letter, New York City, 1988
I shall be in Berlin from late June into July. And after my performances here I believe I may be out of this country. It is necessary to earn money. I have earned about $2,000 in 10 months here. “Changing” is my group. I am the director, founder, choreographer, producer, et cetera. Two of the members remain here in New York. Two are back in Kobenhavn. We plan to continue to work together but just now I am in limbo, as I wait for funding. The last production cost over $10,000 for 7 days of performances. I owe $2,000.

Brown, letter, New York City, 1988, to a Danish friend
I remain homeless and penniless. I have applied for money but it will be some time before I know. I still want a place in the Philippines to live and work and video tape. Perhaps I shall perform “Where the Moon Goes” here in New York in October and at a festival of various groups here at a later date and in Denmark, Asia, and elsewhere. At the moment my life is poetry as each day is a surprise in and of itself that I have lived at all. Recently I have met strangers and become friends. Friends have become better friends. But I remain plagued by the lack of money.

Brown, letter, New York City, 1988
For ten months now I am without a home. I am tired. Since leaving Tokyo I have only had instability. My heart does not want to be here and only by working can I quiet myself. I am helpless here. Yes, I may receive funding. But I am being pulled through torture like vegetables through a juicer.

Brown, letter, New York City, 1990, to a theater director in Hamburg, Germany
The art climate here sucks. No money, no art. Obscenity having become a new cause is having more success. Real and unique work is very hard to find and without patronage such as the Philip Morris company, a supporter also of Senator Jesse Helms — it's an impossible situation. I saw a fantastic performance of a theatre group called En Garde. I am jealous, but somehow it missed the mark. The audience was grooving on the decadence of naked bodies, perverted sexuality, violence and depravity. Instead of being sensitized people were mesmerized and indulged in sexual fantasy. Without patronage I will travel solo for a time and try to get stronger without compromise. If there is anything I have learned, it is not to expect to become part of the mainstream, ever. I have limited time, so I must do exactly what I feel and nothing else.

I would say that José was incapable of dealing with the physical world. He used and destroyed my record of Rachmaninoff's “Vespers.” He would pick up the needle and drop it onto the record over and over again. From his point of view, it was easier to drop the needle on the record. At times I was very angry with him. He borrowed things from me, and if he did, I never got them back in one piece — if I got them back at all. Everything he touched ended up in shreds. He was very hard on things. He paid them no attention. The refrigerator door handle was sticky with honey. That was how José lived. He created chaos.

Mark Johnson, Reed friend and classmate
José just seemed to have a faith that in leaping forward without an apparent plan, there would be arms there to receive him. And, from my distance, it so often seemed to be true... I find that my feelings now for him and about him are even stronger than they were when I was in touch with him.

Brown, letter, New York City, 1988
Hudson Street, Gansevort Street, playground, bright sun warm. Lovely young man on the bench in the distance, Fuji blimp overhead. I've been up all night. The 24-hour porn movie house, $6 — can stay until 7 a.m. 7-8:15 walk by the Hudson to the parks. To the bank, 8:15 — draw money. 8:308:45 breakfast. Engage man at the next table in conversation about Greece, Denmark, and the play he is writing. 10 a.m. visit Minet at Vital Arts Studio where I was supposed to teach. 10:30 a.m. open mailbox. Must return at 11:30 to see if letter has arrived from Berlin — money. Hole in my shoes — shoes stink. Will take a table now.

In the spring of 1996 Brown came home to Portland to die, though he never admitted he was dying. He went there because there were people there who loved him, offered to help him, and urged him to leave New York. He arrived in February, staying first with choreographer and teacher Vin Marti and his wife Anna, then moving to the home of his friends Deborah Einbender, an artist, and Brian Heald, an architect. On March 26, he moved to Our House, an AIDS hospice.

Brian Heald
He was such a pain in the ass about food. At times you'd have to trick him. I talked to a friend, a chef, who'd cared for people with AIDS for a long time. I put the problem to him, “How do you get someone to eat when whatever they see on the plate is so unappealing?” He said, “Hunger begins with the eye. Food is actually a story. There's always a narrative people have behind their eating.”

So we'd take José to Nature's Foods. It was his dinner. He could preside. He could choreograph the meal. He would push the shopping basket, so he could lean on it. He'd tell us what to get, and we'd run around the store, come back asking, “Is this the right kind?” His requirements were very specific. The whole evening would be this meal. Then we'd come back and cook his supper. We'd try to get it right. We'd bring it to him about done. He'd say, “Yes, that'll do.” It was a whole production and he was the director. Then it came time in the story for him to take his role, time for him to pick up the fork and put some food in his mouth. It worked. Yes, it did.

It was good having him here. He was good company. It was stimulating to be around him. His perspective as a citizen of the planet was truly singular. I just can't imagine anybody else with his intelligence, his incredibly broad selfeducation. From reading, from travels. He'd been in Tehran just before the revolution. He'd been to Afghanistan. He went to India to make a presentation to Kalu Rinpoche on behalf of the Tibetan group here in Portland, which led to the Lama coming here to reside. José was the emissary and danced for Kalu Rinpoche, a special dance that was very well received. He had a great eye as a contemporary anthropologist. He was outside of everything. There was no scene that he was in anywhere that he wasn't on the outside of in some way. He was an astute political observer.

Brown, journal entry, 1988
Train 49
Grand Central Station — have arrived in Chicago
$30 in hand, 4 bags, in two hours I meet my mother
Sunrise Lake Erie — entering Cleveland
North American van — snow — every tree
Stripped bare. Could be Denmark but
For the color of the sky, slag, airplanes
Cool water every object a tool of labor
No gardens here, no earthworks, smoke
And fire. Trees without limbs. Toledo.

65 cent coffee. No person to be seen from this
window: frame houses, pointed roofs, square windows,
silent cars, movie house, birds against the sky upon the water.
6000 horses pull two city blocks of us over 1300 miles of steel.

Really, I am shocked at the squareness, the bareness,
The ugliness. Have we no imagination?
Terminal locks, transmissions, cclamps
Radial tires, fuelinjection
Tools of labor, men in nylon parkas,
Men in tractor trucks, men in insulated booths,
Men in ice cream vendor trucks, men in tanks
Men in glass and steel offices, men in
Whitetiled rooms, men in sitcoms,
Men in designer jeans, tools of labor
Organized tedium.
From this window, rusting sign: TOLEDO
Pigeon with a twig — nest building in the steel tree.

What is a bird seeking: food? Seeking
A mate, seeking a home? It breaks another
Twig to the right size, it grooms itself, it
Drinks, it is in no hurry. Why should
I feel superior? Sitting idle in this
Two city block long train. If the engine
Breaks, I could not fly these concrete
Bridges, these endless wires, these turning
Wheels, these men protect me, serve me,
Feed me, transport me. 79 miles per hour,
Could do 100 miles per hour. Cumulus clouds give way to
Cirrus clouds, haze and blue expansion
White concrete blocks, silos, aluminum mobile
Homes, just like the trailer trucks, rows
Of automobiles, a camp of gas stations
Holland, Ohio, woods, windowless ware
Houses, grocery store, gift shop, eatery
School the boxes of homes — dwellings insulated
From the vacant prairie. Engines for hoisting
Tall men, broad men, cropped hair. Blond women,
Easy voices, animated, black women fleshy quick eyes.
A hawk — barns, the TV aerial, fields, the biosphere.
In the summer the wind — the clouds
The thunder, the lightning, the colors of
The sky at sunset, the stars. 2nd hawk.
I have never had love or sex in the Midwest.

He talked about America as choosing the wrong dream. He'd run the whole thing out in dream terms. The heritage of vision, and letting it degrade instead of kicking it up to the next level. The vision of Thoreau and Whitman and Marcus Garvey — all the people who had great vision. He'd talk about it in those terms.

Brown, letter, 1994
Gary is devastated with every fourth house in ruin — burned out or torn down. No economy. My mother refused to open the door to me. So I returned to NYC. Tired from bus rides and nervous exhaustion. From tomorrow I can piece together my “new life.” Not all is clear. But the weather is now in my favor to work outside if the police permit.

He had holes in his shoes and nowhere to live, yet he performed and taught all over the world — Amsterdam, Florence, Greece, Turkey, the Tibetan Opera Company in Dharamsala. He performed for the Queen of Denmark. He performed in Hamburg, Germany and in the Philippines and in Tokyo and in Copenhagen. How did he manage to do it all?

To get started somewhere he would dance on the streets. He would gather a troupe from that act. He would just dance. Put a hat out. I remember him telling that's how he got started in Barcelona. First it was just him. And then there would be ten of them on the street. And then they'd get a studio. And then they'd rent a hall. And then they'd get a grant.

In Barcelona he was trying to put a performance together. He couldn't pay anybody. It was an ambitious piece and the dancers weren't quite good enough, but he'd shuffle things around and tweak it and provoke people in key ways to get them to come out how they needed to be. And in the middle of this — he needed the right costumes. And he saw in the window of a boutique some special dress. So he went into the boutique and told the woman that, for no charge, she could get her dresses shown in a live performance. So he gets the dresses. And of course the performance is totally bizarre. Two of the key people blow up at each other and don't show up, a big snafu, and he just goes and barrels ahead. The woman from the boutique came and José knew she'd be completely befuddled by the whole thing, but no less gave her the proper attention as a patron of the show. Just the gall that was required and the drive that he had to do these things...

Elizabeth Zimmer, critic, from a review in The Village Voice, September 15, 1987
Brown rings dazzling changes, shifting in mid-phrase from balletic poses to Graham genuflections, from Indian classical dance to the dreamy concentration of the Japanese artist who assumes you can see into his mind... Homo mobilis, an aboriginal dancer he carries in his muscles imprints of thousands of years, thousands of miles of journeying to be here now. The impact of his hour and a half of exploring is to restore my confidence in arte povera, in the simplicity of materials required to create theatrical magic.

Aron Faegre, Reed classmate
Part of José's brilliance was his willingness to approach and engage the chaos of the universe, at a time when chaos was a word of little meaning in our culture. Now we know that chaos creates El Niño and La Niña, which in turn perhaps drive all the world's climates. For José there was no distinct line between modern dance and jazz and Jimi Hendrix and Bach. José and I shared a dream early on, of creating a traveling modern circus — of dance and mime, of clowns and classical music. A month ago I saw the Canadian “Saltimbanco” circus, which landed here in Portland for a month along a contaminated vacant shore of the downtown Willamette River. It was in the spirit that José and I had imagined twenty-nine years ago. It was about entertaining people and surprising them and mesmerizing them. His dance did that too.

Vin Marti
José had a tremendous ability to make something happen out of nothing. He was true to his vision. José was the person who “saw” me. I'd only been dancing for six months. He said to me, “You're a performer.” He taught me without teaching me.

José refused to take protease inhibitors. He said they made people sick. He never said to me, “I'm going to die.” He always denied it, in fact. He was determined to get better and carry on with his work. A few weeks before he died, he asked me to take him to Mt. Tabor. It was a warm sunny day. I parked about half way up, and then we walked on trails toward the top. José used a cane and moved very slowly. We stopped to rest several times and turned back without reaching the top. José was very pleased with what he had done. It was a beginning, he said. He was making his legs and lungs work again. We finished our excursion at a coffee shop. Both of us hoped that we would soon be able to walk on a beach at the coast. José wanted to go to the beach more than anywhere else. In the optimism of that afternoon, neither of us could have known that we would not walk together again. By the next weekend, he was bedridden permanently.

Talk about tilting at windmills. He was talking about his next performance while he was dying in the hospice.

Brown, journal entry
In “my” culture dance was a form of worship.
You can't find that in the disco.
You can't find it on the stage. You can't find it in the studio.
I love dancing I love what makes me
dance even more, just like the
dancers love the people they dance with, just as they celebrate their
adornments, their odor, their features, I celebrate my “genii” I
celebrate and I don't want to do anything more than consummate my great
desire in the arms of my angel my love my diva my exalted abstract
philosophy my Tao my Buddha not the audience not my partner not myself
I am sincere
I love to dance
I love dancing Dance is all

Seven of us, including Akemi, took José's ashes to Cannon Beach and scattered them in the Pacific Ocean at the mouth of Ecola Creek. José had planned to go there to perform a ceremony. He didn't tell anyone what it was.

Louise Steinman is author of The Knowing Body: The Artist as Storyteller in Contemporary Performance and, most recently, The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War. She is cultural programs director for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles.

This article was written for and first published in REED Magazine and appears here with permission from the author.