writers on dancing


Shy Genius

"Set and Reset," "Present Tense"
Trisha Brown
Zellerbach Hall
[presented by Cal Performances]
University of California at Berkeley
Berkeley, California
February 25, 2005

by Paul Parish
copyright ©2005 by Paul Parish

It's clear that dancers agree Trisha Brown is a genius. It's not clear that the opera-house audience agrees, or even begins to understand why dancers think so. Last week in Berkeley CAL Performances had to paper the house to get an audience to come at all.

One reason for this might be this, which she said in an interview with Joan Acocella (that was part of a residency for Acocella at UC's Townsend Center): "I'm like a fox; as soon as it looks like a critic has got a handle on what I'm doing, I have to run on to the next thing." Or words to the effect that if it can be named, I've got to find something else. Which is maybe why the dancers respect her so, but it makes it very hard for the press to let the public know WHY they should cross the bridge, what kind of experience is in the offing, what you might get from it.

Bu there's a more important factor even than this kind of misplaced fastidiousness. I am afraid that she lost something important when she began trying to reach beyond "the cadre of 400-600 people who cared deeply about what we were up to." Her early works were in effect made for other dancers to watch, and the pieces were like spectator sports, where the kinesthetic response is so strong that when the outfielder reaches high to catch a long fly ball, half the stands are literally stretching their arms out along with him, un-self-consciously re-enacting the process which is being worked out for them on the field.

The dances of Trisha Brown's that have made me immediately jump up and scream and inwardly think "she's a genius!!" are her 1970's pieces, "Spanish Dance" and "Forest Floor," which were performed here a decade or so ago at the Berkeley Art Museum in the kind of gallery spaces they were made for, where the dancers wore simple jersey togs, the sort of thing the counter-culture wore (and still wears) to do contact-improv. These are short, witty dances anybody could like, but what makes them great is like what makes the songs of Schumann or Wolff great: the compression is fantastic, the logic is rigorous, the piece has its own character down to the DNA.

There's a big difference between those dances and the proscenium pieces. In the move to the large space, where the dance takes place far from us in a box we can peer into, she lost the primacy of the kinesthetic response. I suspect that's restricted her imagination. When dancing in a small space, and dancing basically for other dancers, the audience identified with the performers at a level just short of "monkey see/monkey do." And spectacle was a very small part of the experience.

Nothing comes near the impact Trisha Brown has had on the modern dancers around San Francisco Bay. All over town above storefronts, in little black-box theaters in the Tenderloin, in lofts and warehouse-theaters, dancers are moving like her, releasing their grip, seeking soft paths through their choreographic tasks, moving in the voluptuous free silky-jointed ways she opened up so long ago (letting the arm swing freely from the shoulder, the hip sag sideways, the whole body seethe). The other biggest faction, the aerialists, are developing the tradition of Brown's "equipment dances," when she danced in harness on the walls of the Whitney Museum). We have several companies—I could name five— of dancers-cum-rock-climbers who're performing on the face of El Capitan, or the eaves of skyscrapers, or the clock-face of the Ferry Tower.

On the other hand, Brown's company has not appeared here often, so it's not been easy for the larger public to keep track of her developments. If you don't read the New York Times, you wouldn't necessarily hear that her ballet "Set and Reset" has achieved canonical status in France, or read about her stagings of operas like Monteverdi's "Orpheus." It's a vicious cycle—we rarely get to see what she's up to.

And then when we get to see "Set and Reset" ourselves (not for the first time, actually), lo, we see the prototype of our own dancers.

Brown's company looked beautiful Friday and Saturday night in Zellerbach Hall, a handsome brutalist concrete theate—you know, where you can see the grain in the wood that molded the concrete—and her work seems perfectly framed by the proscenium of that stage (as Nijinska's "Bolero" Spanish tavern scene seems to belong on the Paramount's art-deco movie palace stage). "Set and Reset" in particular had the perfect hybrid ambience. When one sees a dancer in light soft jersey clothes, standing (or lying) against concrete wall (as many of Brown's early works were presented, in galleries and museums), the tenderness and vulnerability of the dancer's body is put warmly in your face. On a stage, with lights and scrims and distance, they're much more apparitional, like figments of our imagination, without concrete existence of their own.

Brown does understand this. The curtain was up (I think) when we got there. Certainly I don't remember a moment when the pyramids and rectangular box of Robert Rauschenberg's glowing set was unveiled; it sat there glowing in the kind of light that comes from a TV set, presenting its gauze-covered facets as a complex of screens, which accepted the flickering projections of something like old newsreels. Our attention was diverted from our conversations with each other by the annoying but hypnotic sound of Laurie Anderson's alarm-bell and Beulah-the-buzzer and newsreel voice-over score, and it was only after we'd had a few minutes to scope out the facts of a high-tech stage—it was all exposed, the light trees, the back wall, the ropes lining the side walls (which lower the "drops"), the huge doors you could back a truck up to, all that)—that with wonderful lightness, a few slender wires raised the geometrical forms, still glowing , into mid air, and a clutch of dancers appeared at the absolute far back, looking a little like Stonehenge—a group of pillars bearing one person horizontal on their shoulders like a lintel—and then they traversed the stage, straight across the back, curved around one set of trees into the usual playing space and then back into the wings.

"Set and Reset" was one of the first dances Brown made for a prosecenium stage, when she decided (as she told Acocella) she wanted a larger audience. It was a fascinating interview in many ways. Especially resonant was the fact, elicited first thing by Acocella, that Brown grew up in Washington state at the edge of a great national forest and spent a great deal of time, as she recuperated from an illness, wandering alone in that forest, stopping by fallen trees for God knows how long and getting lost in wonder at the world of things growing on the huge dead tree.

The second piece ("Present Tense," set to John Cage's enchanting music for prepared piano) was dear and beautiful and dressed in good-luck Chinese red. What was clearly the sweetest thing about it was the way they moved freely, softly, playfully, without thought of what it looked like—as indeed, if you're alone in a forest you might well sing and climb trees and run across little creeks jumping from wet rock to slippery stone, and find your most poignant company in the other creatures around you that were doing the same things—was the playful ways the dancers played horsie with each other.

It was not social movemen, nothing like the harvest dancing of "Giselle," the court dancing of "Swan Lake," the ritualized courtship of the partnering of pas de deux. And yet, it was ALL partnering. Most perhaps like children's games, or the completely stylized war-scenes in Indochinese dancing. The part nobody will forget came when a dancer lay on his back like a dead bug, feet in the air, and another used those feet like stepping stones to run across he stage and leap into another dancer's arms at the far side of the stage.

Another arresting and unforgettable image came when several dancers stretched one out into a long arabesque center stage, and then two dancers—one at the front end and the other at the back—pushed simultaneously so the girl in the middle spun round like a turnstile. It's like the tunes you'd come out of the theater humming: a movement phrase we all wanted to try out immediately, except we couldn't, since you'd need partners and couldn't do it by yourself. But for the rest of the week, I found myself hanging out near the creek which runs through the campus near my day-job, and getting down under the bridges, where the water is after the spring rains all aboil, and running back and forth across the creek from rock to rock.

I wish I'd seen the last piece again; it was set to some new/old jazz, dressed in pastels, the girl in yellow amused me enormously, there was some very witty play with getting out of line, and the boy in lavender reminded me a lot of Baryshnikov in "Push Comes to Shove." But none of my friends thought of Baryshnikov, nor Twyla, so I doubt myself there.

Volume 3, No. 10
March 7, 2005

copyright ©2005 Paul Parish


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last updated on March 7, 2005