Trisha Brown and Robert Rauschenberg in Naples, Italy
I was the logistics manager, technical director and carpenter for the Trisha Brown Dance Company's 1985-86-87 seasons. In the winter of 1986, the Trisha Brown Company (TBDC) performed in a production of Georges Bizet's Carmen at the Teatro di San Carlo opera house in Naples Italy. The production was directed by the renown Italian film director Lina Wertmüller.
Following the performance of Carmen TBDC would continue at the opera house for a five-night run preforming the work of the Trisha Brown Dance Company. All scenic elements, costumes and original films were created by Trisha Brown's board of director's president Robert Rauschenberg.
A bit of context to the importance of this performance.
The Teatro di San Carlo Opera House in Naples Italy was completed in November 4, 1737 and is the oldest opera house in Italy. It had, until this performance only performed classic opera.
Trisha Brown Dance Company was going to be the first modern dance company to ever perform in this historic venue.
There was enormous controversy and anticipation proceeding this event.
Part of my responsibilities included oversee the transportation of all of sets and technical equipment to and from performance venues around the world. For this event I shipped everything by container by sea from New York to Naples Italy. Upon my arrival I checked in with the freight forwarding company for the status of our container. I was informed that there was a dock strike and none of the cargo on the ship was being allowed to be unloaded. And the ship was in fact sitting in the harbor. As I was told in no uncertain term "Your cargo is going nowhere" by the local port authority representative.
I was the person that had to tell Trisha Brown and Robert Rauschenberg that there was a "problem" with the cargo. There was a pause. Rauschenberg very calmly said "I understand, thank you" and he and Ms. Brown sprang into action.
I was to come to understand a few hours later the considerable resources Mr. Rauschenberg and Ms. Brown could bring together at a moment’s notice. I found myself in a room with the Mayor of Naples, The US Consulate Representative and the head of The Italian General Confederation of Labor.
Later I was informed that we were moving on to "Plan B". (I wasn't aware of a "Plan B")
As it turned out Mr. Rauschenberg decided that we would create a whole new theatrical set for the performance. Understand that this was over holiday season 1986. Naples basically shuts down for the holidays between Christmas and New Year’s. And none of the usual resources would be available to us.
With the help of the theater staff we commandeered a small two seat Ape (pronounced Ah-peh) Rauschenberg and his assistant in the front. I sat in the open bed of the truck. We drove around the streets of Naples gathering found objects to create a new theatrical set. After the day of collecting found objects the truck was full. Rauschenberg drove the truck to the theater and using the theater’s elevator to lift the truck to stage level all of the items were dumped on the stage.
I watched Rauschenberg sketching ideas on paper first. He would then arrange items on the floor. Shifting, flipping pieces over and around until he had the composition he wanted. Rauschenberg moved effortlessly from one area to another. Working on multiple pieces at a time. When he was satisfied, he would do a finale rendering and hand me the sketch. I would create wiring harness in order to fly these items up in the air. Cabling all of the scenic elements together. Kitchen sinks, Venetian blinds, fencing, screen doors. What first looked like a pile of discarded junk rose into the air. The effect was stunning.
The first piece was called Lateral Pass. It was performed in silence. As the curtain and the lights came up the set rose into the air. A moment later the first dancers entered the stage and began performing the piece.
Within a minute there was an audible rumbling in the audience. Then the first protest broke the silence. Speaking in Italian "Scendi dal nostro palco!" "Get off our stage" and with that the flood gates were open. Half of the audience began yelling at the performers. At the same time the other half of the audience began yell at the protesters "Idioti che non sapete cosa state guardando" "You idiots you don't know what you are looking at!" This went on for a few minutes. Trisha and the crew looked on helplessly from the wings as the theater staff tried to get some sort of control of the situation. Not surprisingly through all of the distractions the dancers kept their cool and kept performing. Luckily the protest was short lived and by the end of the first piece the audience began to settle down.
By the end of the evening the once outraged and incensed audience members were converted. And the company received a standing ovation that last well over a two minutes.
To say the evening was electrifying might be an understatement. The adrenaline that was ragging through the theater that night had a profound effect on the performers and their performances, the crew and all that attended. It is one of my greatest memories working in the theater or anywhere else.
p.s. I didn't know at the time that maybe I should not of thrown away the original sketches by Mr. Rauschenberg.
J F Jones