|Newark (Niweweorce). Photo: Stephanie Berger|
By Susan Yung
On the surface, Trisha Brown’s proscenium dances are kinetically intriguing and relatable, formed of waves of roiling, fluid phrases. But dig down, and the intellectual rigor and self-imposed rules factoring into their creation reveal Brown’s fascinating thought processes, and connect them to her early task-based or site-specific works such as Walking on the Wall or Roof Piece. Three major proscenium works will be performed by the Trisha Brown Dance Company at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House from January 28—30, celebrating a relationship that dates from 1976.
As organic as her movement appears, Brown laid down fairly specific action guidelines. In her essay “How to Make Modern Dance When the Sky’s the Limit” (in Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dialogue, 1961—2001), she described the dance’s essential structure. “For Set and Reset, I made a very long phrase that circumvented the outside edge of the stage, serving as a conveyor belt to deliver duets, trios, and solos into the center of the stage. All of the dancers were taught the phrase and given the following set of five instructions: 1. Keep it simple. (The clarity issue.) 2. Play with visibility and invisibility. (The privacy issue.) 3. If you don’t know what to do, get in line. (Helping out with downtime.) 4. Stay on the outside edge of the stage (The spatial issue.) 5. Act on instinct. (The wild card.)”
|Set and Reset. Photo: Stephanie Berger|
One of Brown’s operative tenets was visibility/ invisibility, and here the use of the stage’s legs—the vertical drapes hiding the offstage area—came into play. “The stage’s velour legs have been reconstituted as see-through black scrim edged with a vertical stripe of ice-white satin, which demarcates the difference between onstage behavior and off,” she wrote. “Our sanctuary is gone, invisibility dashed, downtime on display. To this situation Bob added gorgeous filmy white transparent costumes, silkscreened with pale-gray-to-black urban industrial images.” Set and Reset is from Brown’s “unstable molecular cycle,” one of several poetically named series comprising her oeuvre that hew to certain concepts or dogma.
Newark (Niweweorce) (1987) falls into the “valiant cycle,” characterized by athleticism and full-out physical experimentation; Donald Judd designed the set, and Peter Zummo wrote the score. Brown writes, “I began my search for vocabulary by pushing furniture around in the studio. This behavior translated into a resolve to push myself and my dancers into powerful movement and carefully designed bodygeometries, initially similar to furniture.” It is remarkable for its technical and physical difficulty and the spatial manipulation of the moving scenography. Brown noted, “Don’s stage design comprised five proscenium-size drops in the three primary colors plus brown and another shade of red. They split the stage into sections forming four corridors, which could alternately block and reveal the dance.”
By asking a visionary artist to collaborate, Brown had in turn become obligated to Judd’s scheme. “I had unwittingly allowed Judd to usurp the choreographer’s territory of time and space. He could cut off a dancer flung high in an arc, or confine us in a narrow strip on the downstage light line, five feet deep and 40 wide. My choreographic solution was to visually design the dance into the motional elements of the set, albeit adapting a few aspects to my favor. Why did I put up with it? Too late to change for one, but remember that abstract modern dance, unfettered by story and music, is, necessarily, in search of a logic or rationale to reduce the proliferation of options that hang around winking at us. The Newark set did impose tough dialogues and severe internal limitations, but it also delivered a spatial and temporal score that forced invention and issued one of the most striking pieces in our repertory.”
PRESENT TENSE (2003) rounds out the BAM program, with set design by Elizabeth Murray and a score by John Cage. This work falls into Brown’s “music cycle,” a bit ironic since Cage poked music’s rules. It features dancers lifting one another—soaring, suspended; weightless, then weighty. Murray was a longtime friend of Trisha Brown, who has produced a significant output as a visual artist. Her body of work germinated and flourished in 1970s New York, where boundaries between genres fell away and collaboration was not simply choice, but a way to live and create. These stately proscenium dances are the largest-scale works in a richly layered oeuvre.
Trisha Brown Dance Company comes to BAM January 28—30, and tickets are still available.
Susan Yung is Senior Editorial Manager at BAM.
Reprinted from December 2015 BAMbill.