This is the third installment of Debra Cash’s coverage of events associated with the Institute of Contemporary Art’s Dance/Draw.
Trisha Brown Dance Company: Works from 1978 to 2011. At the Institute for Contemporary Art, Boston, November 11 through 13, 2011.
By Debra Cash
Trisha Brown has been making dances for over 40 years, but her dances seem to take place out of time in gravityless ether. The mini-retrospective the Trisha Brown Dance Company brought to the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) this weekend, with four works from each of four different decades, left an impression of a great mind working itself into and out of ever more exhilarating puzzles.
Foray Foret (1990) opened the program out of chronological sequence but as a perfect introduction to Brown’s achievement. The dancers, dressed in late artist Robert Rauschenberg’s gorgeous, molten, metallic capri pants and blouses swing in gentle responses to kinetic impulses, a style at once forgiving in its natural shapeliness and demanding in its delicate and shifting detail. The sound of the Lexington High School Marching Band playing somewhere outside on the waterfront is, at first, an irritant you want to swat away (and some of the bleating notes were doozies). But then it encroaches on the silence that the dance inhabits, like Charles Ives’s father’s famous experiment of sending two bands marching towards each other from opposite directions. Martial rhythms intersect with the serenity of the dancing. Your brain makes subtexts out of the inadvertent matches: is that upward flinging arm movement the bombs bursting in air? Are the anchors actually being hauled away?
Foray Foret introduces Leah Morrison, wearing a flowing smock, dancing the solo Brown originally created for herself. It’s easy to see why she was cast: Morrison shares Brown’s long hands, elastic feet, and most important, an unhurried attack that folds even the most eccentric gestures into an easy stream. I also noticed the artful precision of Moscow-born Elena Demyanenko: When Foray Foret was created, the idea that a Russian dancer could perform this quintessentially American style so beautifully would have seemed outlandish.
Casting revived works makes special demands. Ever since Brown added men to her company in 1979, she has conveyed that gender doesn’t matter. Nonetheless, Neal Beasley gives Watermotor (1978) a dose of testosterone, albeit of an almost comic kind: pawing his feet like a cartoon bull, bonking his own chest, flipping direction with no apparent preparation. That rare combination of loose motion and hard-hitting energy is a notion that former Brown company member Stephen Petronio took from her work and ran with in spades. (Petronio’s troupe returns to the ICA stage under the auspices of World Music/CRASHarts February 10–12, 2012.)
Opal Loop is a dance where motion and stillness are in perfect proportion and where unison emerges as an unexpected grace note. I missed Fujiko Nakaya’s wonderful, ambient fog “Cloud Installation/ #72503” that usually plays hide and seek with the performers in Opal Loop (1980), but the density of that environment was replaced with the back wall of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater being opened to the inky night harbor where planes could be glimpsed taking off from Logan in sparkling diagonals. Lit by Beverly Emmons in shifting tones of amber and charcoal, the quartet in this version of Opal Loop seemed like a school of glittering minnows in a spacious fish tank, their reflections giving the audience a 360 degree view of the action.
In its quiet intricacy, Opal Loop moves unhesitatingly towards the baroque. I don’t think it was a taste for novelty that led Brown to choreograph Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opera, Pygmalion, with the original instrument ensemble led by William Christie, Les Arts Florissants: Brown has choreographed or directed a number of operas, including Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, before, and the French have taken her (and some of her postmodern colleagues) to heart in a way that Americans have never equaled.
Her distillation of the dances from Pygmalion, called Les Yeux et l’ame (2011), is dominated by a huge blowup of one of her gestural drawings, a swirl of smudged, charcoal curves. (See slightly different elements from this project here.) Wearing lovely, fluid, gray costumes laced with white ribbon by Elizabeth Cannon and lit by Jennifer Tipton, the dancey-ness becomes a container for sheer invention. What’s baroque is the way Brown’s long, ornamental line never loses its forward momentum, a quality paralleling Les Arts Florissants’s continuo and bright horns.
With ungendered partnering—who knew the 1740s could be same-sex friendly?—Les Yeux displays courtliness in the deliberateness of the dancers’ exchanges with one another and their careful placement across the stage space. And if Les Yeux resembles a dance by Mark Morris a bit too closely, that doesn’t mean Trisha Brown has finally come around to embracing musical convention. It’s because, born in silence, her own movement language is strong enough to scale a new and different mountain.
C 2011 Debra Cash