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Flash Review 5-10, Designing Woman
New Steps from Trisha Brown

By Ben Munisteri
Copyright 2000 Ben Munisteri

I remember my college dance professor explaining to her students that when Trisha Brown creates a new piece of movement vocabulary -- a new step -- it is a rare event. I have been watching the Trisha Brown company for 15 years, and last night's New York premiere of "Rapture to Leon James" contained not just one new step, but dozens. As usual it was meticulously structured and brilliantly composed, but its movements were very different from the rest of her 40-year repertory. This morning I am still deeply impressed with its design; I'm just not sure yet if I liked it.

The company's Program B last night was a long one -- almost three hours. Brown danced her 1975 solo "Locus'" in silence, followed by "For MG: The movie" (1991). During the long intermission friends asked me to explain the last piece. I referred them to the program notes, which say "the guiding principals [sic] for this piece are enigma, [sic] and the perception of time and its inconsistency." Indeed, Brown paints an enigmatic scene in this dance, and like a slow-moving dream, it is inexplicable. Willing to give myself over to the piece's deliberate plodding pace, I nonetheless found myself wishing the dreamer would wake or dream about something less minimal. (I must admit to being told several times during my life that I have a short attention span.)

The wonderful "Canto/Pianto" (1998) to Monteverdi's opera "L'Orfeo" is a post-modern telling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth to a Baroque score. With understated drama and buoyant musicality, the company's ensemble dancing was truly beautiful. Just when we categorize Brown as not a musical choreographer, she shocks us late in her career with a deft understanding of the score's structure and its rhythms. I must admit to being bored by two very slow, minimal recitative sections, but the other sections made up for them. Most memorable are Eurydice's descent to Hades, brilliantly lit by Jennifer Tipton, and the moment when Orpheus (Todd Stone) falters and looks back at his bride (Abigail Yager). Invisible zephyrs quietly and irrevocably take her back to the land of the dead.

Okay -- so after another 20-minute intermission the curtain rises to a bare stage except for a large tower of cymbals stage left. The program notes to "Rapture to Leon James" explain that James was a famous Lindy-hopper at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom in the late 1930s. Dave Douglas's live score is played by a four-person jazz ensemble as two women, costumed in frumpy 30s-ish outfits and black shoes, dance an easy, release-y duet. My first thought is that Brown's post-modern style -- which refuses to reference anything popular, vernacular, Modern, or jazzy -- cannot possibly sustain a dance about an American social dance form. As Douglas's jazz music swelled I began to want to see some Lindy-hopping. Instead I got a stage full of people doing Trisha-like movement. Then something happened: The phrases developed into very quick-gesturing and fast-footed sequences. They looked kind of like a distillation of the Lindy. They looked kind of... fun. Led by dancer Keith Thompson's soft, breathless, and elated counting the dancers laid out a sequence of very specific, idiosyncratic and speedy phrases. Their unison was dazzling.

And the more they danced they more fun it looked. But what about the meter? Were Thompson's counts on Douglas's beat? I tried to listen for Douglas's groove, but I couldn't count it. Then, suddenly, there was a discernable four/four rhythm. I checked back with Thompson's counts. He was becoming increasingly charming as he smiled and panted out his "eights." Yager smiled back sincerely. Well, I wasn't sure if they had synched-up with Douglas's temporary tempo, or if, by chance, they were sort of on the beat. But I was sure that the dance was becoming appealing in its charm and spontaneity.

But was it spontaneous? Not entirely choreographed? Well, it looked that way: the dancers' ingenuous joy and occasional laughter was not acted. This was exciting. My improvisational suspicions grew when the dancers called out what seemed to be the names of specific dance phrases: "Fingers!" "Spanish!" "Bird!" Groups of unison performers would shift, duets would appear from nowhere, the group re-formatted itself. All the dancers were wonderful, but I want especially to note newcomer Seth Parker, whose subtle sensuality was very engaging. Now, maybe it's just because the boy was so fine, but I couldn't take my eyes of him.

I guess I liked this dance after all.

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