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Flash Review 5-10, Designing
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
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
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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