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Jose Brown: Arte Povera

by Louise Steinman

Jose Brown's obituary from Reed Magazine, November 1996




Dance is an ephemeral art: when the dancer and choreographer vanishes, what remains is the memory of the dancer, the memory of the dance. I wanted, in this article, to celebrate the memory of José Brown '71, as well as consider some of the questions provoked by his untimely death. Since I began this journey--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 Reed dance 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?"

In 1977, then a fledgling dance writer, I reviewed one of José's solo performances. In it I wrote, "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?"

Akemi Masaki, choreographer and dancer, first saw José 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. José was always running. He was always moving so quickly. He hardly slept. Just 2-3 hours. It made me think he would have a short life. He lived dance."

Reed dance professor Judy Massee first saw José in the dance studio at Reed. He returned to Reed several times to teach dance workshops. "How awful that choreographers can't make a living in America. 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."

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Program notes to
José'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 T4 cell count is 9. I have been HIV positive for over 11 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 encouraged me and because of the significant contributions she has made to the world of dance.

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