You Couldn't See Me," "Set and Reset," "Geometry of
Quiet,"Present Tense," "Astral Convertible," "Glacial
The Trisha Brown Dance Company
Rose Theater (home of Jazz at Lincoln Center)
The Time Warner Building
New York City
April 13 and 14, 2005
©2005 by Nancy
There were two pieces new to New York on the second of Trisha Brown's
program here last week. The one that's supposed to be novel looked old
hat, and the one that's old hat looked novel. Her first night was a four-piece
retrospective honoring frequent collaborator Robert Rauschenberg, in the
house for the opening. Looking at his pieces for his friend Trisha, you
can see how the artist mined her own coloration and movement style in
his design work for her, enhancing her concerns, and enlarging them with
his own fantastic spirit. All of these decors for her are white, grey,
silver, black—some version of no color, something like mercury.
Slippery, shiny, forever elusive, yet clear.
Like the choreographer herself, now silver haired, still fluent, still
fluid, as seen in her solo from 1994, "If You Couldn't See Me."
Wearing a dressed scooped low on her lovely back and slit high on her
lovely legs, Brown reprised this ultimate foray into voyeur's heaven–she
dances turned away from us. "Look at me all you want," this
dance says. "I'll never know." More than any other choreographer
I can think of, Brown plays with this issue (the experience, of dance-going
as voyeurism), creating worlds we look in on. Or this was the case until
she got to her classical music and opera phase, and she turned outward.
Of course by then she was outside the dances herself, having retired from
group performance, which may account for the switch in perspective.
The thirty-fifth anniversary of the Trisha Brown Dance Company was celebrated
with this season, and it seemed as if the whole art and dance world turned
out for it. From here, you can see that Brown's choreography, as a whole,
is like the title of one of her dances, a beautiful work not on these
programs: It's an Opal Loop, gleaming, shifting yet solid, appearing different
at different times, and in different lights. This work has evolved in
series, and mini-series, defined by Brown's intellectual pursuits, and
the music she chooses. Yet despite her intelligent and diligent study
of the musical material, Brown isn't innately musical, or rhythmical.
She is, rather, innately visual, playing with dancers and the frame of
the stage the way painters play with paint and the boundaries of a canvas.
She makes drip paintings with dancers, splashing them hither and yon—on
the sides of the space alone, or all over it; separately, or all on top
of each other. Overlapping, underlapping, interlapping.
textbook example is her fabulous "Set and Reset," made in 1983.
This dance is overtly her masterpiece—the kind of work a choreographer
lives to make, and then has to live with, like Paul Taylor with "Esplanade."
It was given a remarkable performance here, playful, task-oriented, light-hearted,
happy. I don't think Brown ever had a better musical match than Laurie
Anderson, whose repetitively intoned "long time no see long time
no see" drives the swift dancing, and the response to it. Some nineteen
years later, in the "Geometry of Quiet," seen on the second
program, Brown slows her alluring perpetual motion machine to a near halt,
as if the air around the dance, which the dancers once swam through like
water, has grown viscous and inhibiting. She gives us all the time in
the world to look at every passing image, while an on stage flutist emits
the etiolated wheezes and gasps that characterize the music of Salvatore
Sciarrino. (Her choreography to Schubert's "Wintereise" is in
a similar decorative vein.)
The following year, 2003, she produced "Present Tense," one
of the two New York premieres. Marvelous! Seeing it feels something like
seeing "Set and Reset," as if Brown has circled back to her
old interests, refreshed by new concerns. More volume, more heft, but
still that old sorcery, that sense that the dance is a conjuring trick.
There are novel partnering devices–an interest in feet, the soles
of the feet, but the best news here is old. Brown has rediscovered her
appetite for travel, for gobbling up space with dancers, and she's lofted
along by John Cage's "Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano"
(1946-48). This is an interesting choice, because it corresponds—or
precedes by merely a few years—the work of Merce Cunningham's which
Trisha Brown's resembles. That is, Brown recalls at times early Cunningham.
(The works in his current repertory from that phase of his work are "Suite
for Five" and a duet from "Aeon," which is performed in
"Events.") I bring this up because it seems to be the thing
to compare her work to his. This isn't surprising given that she has worked
with his first artistic director (Rauschenberg) and his more recent technology
partners for "Biped," and also is using music by his first music
director, John Cage. And indeed, there are some choreographic correspondences,
in passing configurations and certain tactical deployments, and in stylistic
allusions, but in terms of dance technique these choreographers are completely
"Present Tense" is also buoyed by the artist Elizabeth Murray,
who puts the dancers in bright tops and trousers before a backdrop whose
coloration–pow!—recalls the ferocious surprise of Nicholas
Roerich's backdrop for Nijinsky's "Rite of Spring." Green! Blue!
Orange! Murray's giant abstract shapes don't lend themselves to a verbal
response, they're way too primordial, or something like primordial, but
looking at the puffy blue clouds, the cross-like shape in the center,
and the verdant "v"s beneath, I felt as if I might be sailing
into the harbor at Rio. And how fetching the natives! The dance begins
with a solo, and opens out into vivid groups, and groups of groups, with
dancers flung up from their center so that they hang in your mind forever
after. The choreographic hand splashes them upward, and there they remain,
The big novelty item on this bill may share in these movement qualities
and properties. Or it may not. To tell you the truth, I cannot tell, because
the technology of the decor overwhelms the choreography for "how
long does the subject linger on the edge of the volume," and the
computer generated decor by Marc Downie, Shelley Eshkar, and Paul Kaiser—billed
as a "visual presentation"—takes over. This is not all
that different from what happens with the Rauschenberg decor,dating from
1989, for "Astral Convertible." It proposes interactivity between
dancers and set, with sensors on the people and receivers on metal towers
hung with spot lights, and connecting to sound devices. There is no symbiosis
that you can see, but it must occur, because the lights come on and off
and so does the sound. Meanwhile, in dimness, there's a fantastic duet,
some inspired froggy jumps, and a lot of biomorphic shapes that recall
Pilobolus—or, to the more historical, or dance historical, Alwin
With the computer generated art, the dancers aren't surrounded by the
set. Rather, they are trapped behind it, for the imagery is projected
on a scrim. Mostly it looks like geometry problems, though there is a
very fleeting vision of large moving creatures. The intersecting lines
and cat's cradles at times seem attached to the dancers, and my impression
is that they are supposed to appear to be "drawn" by the moving
bodies. From where I sat, this didn't happen–but viewing angles
can be a problem with this kind of work. Still, at one point, when a red
portal appeared on the stage and the dancers appeared to walk though it,
I could dimly apprehend a future where entire decors will be summoned
through virtual reality, like the scenery on the holodeck of the Starship
Enterprise. And then, why not virtual everything? Imagine "if you
couldn't see me" projected into your media room. You could sneak
into it from behind and catch a glimpse of Trisha Brown's face.
Or why not spin into "Glacial Decoy," that divine dance from
1979, full of icy dervishes?
This is post-modernism's "Kingdom of the Shades," enacted by
a female quartet, and a ringer–that is, a fifth dancer who makes
possible the choreographer's slight of hand. And this is Trisha Brown
at her most delicious—so cool she's hot. I do love this piece, which
I happened to see recently in Paris, where Lisa Kraus set it on the Paris
Opera Ballet. There, you could see classical shapes deeply embedded within
the form; and the ballerinas, with their knack for decorative gesture,
knew just how to articulate the more finicky moves within the larger shapes.
There was with them a tension that is absent from Brown's own company,
now full of dancers who all are trained in some kind of release. To them
this sort of thing is not second nature, but first. Like so many dancers
of this generation, they are post-modern adepts. So on opening night,
"Glacial Decoy" appeared and disappeared, for nothing in it
is finished and everything in it evaporates, like a smooth conjuring trick.
The quickness of the dance deceived the eye. That's magic.
First: "Astral Convertible," photo: Lois Greenfield.
Second: "Set and Reset," photo: Mark Hanauer.
Third: Brandi Norton (facing front); Stacey Spence in "Present Tense."
Photo byTristan Jeanne-Vales
Fourth: "Glacial Decoy," photo: Anne Nordmann.
April 18, 2005
Alan M. Kriegsman
Sali Ann Kriegsman
Alexandra Tomalonis (Editor)
Kathrine Sorley Walker