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Trisha Brown Dance Company

'Planes,' 'Glacial Decoy,' 'O zlozony/O composite' and 'L'amour au théâtre'

by Mark Franko

May 1, 2009 -- Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York

The appearance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York of the Trisha Brown Dance Company on May 1, 2009 afforded a unique historical and contemporary perspective on Brown’s work. “Planes” (1968) and “Glacial Decoy” (1979) provided a retrospective grasp of her choreographic art; “O zlozony/O composite” (2004) and “L’amour au theater” (World Premiere) offered us a sense of the present, and even the future. The premiere, in particular, is a work in progress offering a glimpse of the direction of a larger future project. In addition to the complex temporality of this program, the 2004 work was created on ballet dancers of the Paris Opera, and was performed by these same dancers at BAM. Thus, we also got a sense of how classically trained French dancers handle Brown’s work. The premiere was performed to excerpts from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opera “Hyppolyte et Aricie,” referencing the baroque to Brown’s postmodernism.

“Glacial Decoy” is remarkable for its pacing and flow. Performed by five women in utter silence, there is a haunting sense of the absent score made most palpable by the rhythmic togetherness and pulse coursing through this otherwise tranquil choreographic composition. Most impressive is the maintenance of a pace and clarity of attack that is nonetheless profoundly discontinuous: almost every level of gesture, direction and focus is broken off, yet a strong sense of continuous flow presides. The dancers maintain a hypnotic sense of congruity with five large screens behind them displaying a cross-fade slide show of Robert Rauschenberg’s photographs. The slides disappear and reappear as they move across the stage from left to right. No humans appear in these images of animal heads, empty lots, statuary, abandoned work areas, open skies, rock formations, close-up details of homey interiors. Black and white, hard-edged images of Americana, these photos suggest the much earlier collaboration of writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans on “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”

The dancers in white shifts, also designed by Rauschenberg, seem pristine but also homespun, and are wedded to the images obliquely by the luminous black and white tonality of the lighting (also designed by Rauschenberg). What is missing is the thirties discourse that would have held together such imagery. It is both historically marked and displaced in time as an artifact (perhaps a decoy). Hence, the imagination is free to roam, but the field in which it roams is culturally marked. The choreographic syntax is full of surprises. A veritable dialectic between movement and gesture, lyrical flow and the everyday, structures this choreography, which never once runs the risk of repetitiveness. Still, an air of formality reigns. The dancers maintain a subtle connection to the movement of the photos from left to right as well as to the screens themselves in their rectangularity, suggesting a proscenium stage. Not surprisingly, this was Brown’s first work for the proscenium stage and there are many allusions to its frame, and to strategies for resisting the containment it imposes.

Given that fact, “Planes” (1968) stands apart as created for a non-proscenium space. Yet, we see it in the opera house of BAM, creating a de-familiarizing effect in the theatre. There is a white wall that three dancers are lodged in or on. The wall is actually a screen to host a series of moving images (Jud Yalkut) alternating black and white and color. The dancers, in black and white jumpers, hang on the wall and evolve slowly from place to place across its surface. Our perception of them is entirely dictated by the moving images. Planes suggests much later experimentation with dance and new media in that bodies are in a sense rewritten by their visual surroundings: we cannot grasp the dancers as unmediated physicality, but rather as reflections of a larger visual experience. At times, the three seem to be clambering on the wall, their feet hooked into circular recesses that read like upholstery buttons; at times they seem to fly through space. There is a playful alternation between stationary and flying positions (as if they themselves were a sort of astral debris), flickering and static apprehensions of the figures mounted like butterflies on the wall, which is not a wall actually, but a potential opening onto viscera, cityscapes, other bodies, or outer space.

“O zlozony/O composite,” danced by Aurélie Dupont, Manuel Legris, and Nicholas Le Riche of the Paris Opera Ballet, is set to an almost electronic score by Laurie Anderson, and backed by an impressive starry night sky drop cloth by Vija Celmens, which extends far above the playing space. Although this is in many respects a very classical context, the soaring night sky relativizes the ability of the proscenium to frame such proceedings. The score is punctuated by the evocative female voice speaking in Polish. We are not meant to understand the words, and frequently her vocal gestures are what count. Classical technique is clearly in evidence, but characterized by wheeling turns, spirally arms and hips contrasted with straight-elbowed port de bras. Both lyrical and formal, this work has a hypnotic feel. What I found most interesting was the indeterminacy of relationships between dancers. We see two men manipulating one woman, a series of duets with one dancer left out, the suggestions of solos, and of a trio coming in and out of focus. No sooner do we recognize the choreographic genre (particularly legible in that this is classical ballet) then we are deprived of the ability to stabilize it because it mutates immediately into other relationships. The choreographic flow is mirrored by the seamless movement itself, and by the background unconcerned with framing and offering no set image.

“L’amour au theater” is choreographed to excerpts of a Rameau opera, with instrumental passages as well as choruses and soloists singing in French. The backdrop is a gorgeous drawing by Brown herself suggesting the curlicues of baroque ornamentation with a modernist (almost Kandinsky-like) freedom. Here, we see Brown’s own company performing to baroque music. This was the one occasion of the evening in which the decision to dance to music appears to have been made. To my eye and ear, Brown seems to hear Rameau in waves, and she creates some interesting overlapping moments between sections, where silence needs to be bridged. Slightly troubling is that the music itself seems segmented, which emphasizes the narrative and operatic context from which it was taken.

Brown gestures to the baroque by emphasizing the scooping circularity of movement, a quality markedly present in the arms and hands of historical baroque dance. Yet, the decision to dance to the music is puzzling to me given that this idea does not seem integral to Brown’s vision of dance. The most remarkable accomplishment of Brown’s work for me is the mystery of its flow, and the disjunctions of modes that are nevertheless subsumed by the dance’s unfolding. Obedience to the music of Rameau defuses this quality without substituting a relationship to the baroque on a stylistic or conceptual level. It is also difficult to accept the operatic text as one layered element among others, since the integration of words with the music is determined by the music itself. It is, nonetheless, a pleasing and inventive dance to watch if atypical of Brown in that the foreground and background of traditional theatre re-assert their classic hierarchies.

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