Trisha Brown Dance Company Marks 40-Year Anniversary at Jacob’s Pillow
Dance review by Bess J.M. Hochstein
Photo: Julieta Cervantes
Trisha Brown is the Eileen Fisher of the dance world. Like Fisher’s clothing, Brown’s dances are loose, comfortable, fluid, and seemingly simple and unstructured while actually finely and smartly constructed with shrewd attention to detail. Like Fisher in the design world, Brown has a style all her own that has nonetheless inspired the work of scores of choreographers who have followed in her quick, unpredictable footsteps. And, like Fisher, Brown’s work is timeless; while her dancers may now be more highly trained and her patterns and structures more complex, her basic movement vocabulary remains consistent and stands up through the decades.
Set and Reset (1983; photo: Karli Cadel), the finale of a four-work program that stretches from 1973 to the present, is a case in point. No matter how many times you’ve seen it, it’s always a joy to watch. One of Brown’s many collaborations with Robert Rauschenberg, who designed the set (two triangles and a rectangle suspended above the stage, serving as screens for projected vintage black & white films, plus black and white curtains hanging in the wings), costumes (sheer, loose and flowing, with a faint pattern reminiscent of blueprints), and had a hand in the lighting, the piece flows so naturally to Laurie Anderson’s original score that it’s impossible to imagine one without the other.
Throughout this work we notice distinct, foundational elements that recur in the two more recent works of the program—the opener, Les Yeux et l’âme (2011), and Foray Forêt (1990): fluid motion; abstract composition; movement that seems to initiate from the arms or hands; the illusion of weightlessness and effortlessness despite rapid, nonstop, precise dancing; looseness in the joints that allows the arms and legs to swing freely; bodies held in asymmetry, mostly with a straight spine; arms held at right angles, legs too; interesting and amusing things happening at the edges of the stage; clever weight transference between dancers; humor; and a key section in which the dancers line up center stage, from front to back, and lunge, fold, twirl, walk, fall, lean, melt out of line and merge back in again, like a wave unfurling and re-forming, a set piece with tremendous visual appeal.
Les Yeux et l’âme (The Eyes and the soul; photo: Deen van Meer), a lyrical dance that Brown created for a production of the Rameau opera Pygmalion, conducted by William Christie, incorporates these common elements in a more formal framework and more traditionally graceful composition. This dance has more traditional partnering and interactions between the dancing partners and among the couples dancing as an ensemble. It’s a satisfying work of structure and wit.
Foray Forêt (photo: Karli Cadel) is set to marching band music that fades in so gradually after the dancers have begun moving to silence that you might mistake the score for noise bleeding in from outside the theater, until it wells up loud, then seems to march around the room itself. At first the dancers appear to be moving in isolation from each other, but then patterns begin to emerge in the way forms and movements overlap or echo, and a careful viewer will note repeated phrases. The gold-accented costumes by Rauschenberg (in their final collaboration) are nearly as eccentric as the movement. The final segment, with one dancer, now in a loose dress, accompanies by fleeting appearance by the ensemble’s arms, feet, and other isolated body parts peeking out from the wings, makes for an indelible dance image, and also leaves one questioning whether there is a narrative through-story.
The third work on the program, Spanish Dance (1973; photo: Karli Cadel), arrived like a post-intermission interlude, and a reminder of Brown’s earlier, simpler explorations of accumulation. In this case it’s bodies, rather than movements, that accumulate. Five dancers stand spaced evenly along a line in front of the curtain, facing the wing. When the music begins—Bob Dylan’s rendition of Early Morning Rain, written by Gordon Lightfoot—the last dancer begins to move, at first swaying her hips and pumping her legs in place in time to the score, then snaking her arms upward like a flamenco dancer and rhythmically shuffling forward until she bumps up against the second dancer, and sets her in motion, remaining snug against her. In the end, all five dancers are piled up, chugging along, and despite the snaking arms one can’t help thinking of a train, even without the song’s lyrics: “You can’t jump a jet plane/Like you can a freight train.” It’s a quick blast from the past, when highly trained dancers (such as those that comprise Brown’s company today) were not necessary to present a work on stage, and neither was a stage, for that matter.
Fads and trends may come and go, but Trisha Brown’s work never goes out of fashion. It may get more complex as the decades go by, but whatever the vintage, it’s clean, clear, comfortable, and easy on the eyes. It’s not for everyone, but like Eileen Fisher, Brown sticks to her knitting; she has devoted fans who know they can turn, and return, to Brown for dance that’s delightful, smart, quirky, joyful, light as air, full of surprises, and always a pleasure to watch.
Trisha Brown Dance Company 40th Anniversary Celebration
August 10 - 14, in The Ted Shawn Theatre
Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, MA