writers on dancing


Slip Sliding Away

"If You Couldn't See Me," "Set and Reset," "Geometry of Quiet,"Present Tense," "Astral Convertible," "Glacial Decoy"
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

by Nancy Dalva
copyright ©2005 by Nancy Dalva


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.

A 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 different.

"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 Nikolais.

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.

Volume 3, No. 15
April 18, 2005

copyright ©2005 Nancy Dalva


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last updated on April 18, 2005