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Flash Review 3, 7-3: The Tao of Trisha
Brown's Latest Countermoves

By Byron Woods
Copyright 2000 Byron Woods

DURHAM, NC -- The deceptively simple opening of Trisha Brown's "Groove and Countermove," which premiered last week at the American Dance Festival, precedes a lesson in what might be termed the Tao of jazz and dance.

The third and final section of her jazz trilogy in collaboration with trumpeter and composer Dave Douglas, designer Terry Winters and lighting designer Jennifer Tipton bowed Thursday night at Page Auditorium. At first "Groove" seemed a somewhat subdued denouement to the opening kinetics of "Five Part Weather Invention," commissioned by the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, and the retro-cool of "Rapture to Leon James," which premiered earlier this season at Kennedy Center. That's before it turned into a primer on why we do any of this work in the first place: make dance, enact it, or enjoy it as an audience.

The combined chaos and control of Winters's backdrop, a gridded black and white line drawing, seemed to superimpose flight patterns on a page of blank sheet music. So did the dance which followed in "Five Part Weather Invention." The shadows of dancers backlit against this visual begged the question of the clef and keys in which they danced. Later, dancers dressed in primary colors shadowed one another in sequences that seemed one part modern dance, one part basketball: at points we less expected these doubles to lift their partner than to block their shot.

Later, the colorful corps of nine sequentially echoed the frisky hand, leg and body articulations of changing leaders, an obvious and dazzling homage to photographer Edward Muybridge's famous human motion studies. The exuberance of a group in complex play -- the most imaginative version of follow the leader we'll likely ever see -- was nothing less than infectious.

Diane Madden's solo section, separating the first and second movements, invoked a tesseract -- the simultaneous exploration of all space surrounding the dancer. Given the choreographer's observation that "weather begins where the skin ends," the passionate movement carried forth the inquiry of the first set, under different circumstances.

Bop hymnody was the watchword for "Rapture," an inventive tribute to legendary Lindy dancer Leon James. Douglas's six-piece band alternated between bossa nova, bebop and escapee orchestrations from 1950s animated cartoons. Meanwhile, two women in black and white provided a frame which opened, squeezed, and ultimately closed two contrasting pictures of 1940s and early 1950s dance.

Tipton's lights and Winters's costumes replicated the retro kitsch that once graced the covers of old Xaviar Cugat albums, as small groups tripped an altered light fantastic. The corps ultimately forsook that 1950s rec room for a celebratory chorus line, where dancers quoted soft shoe and tap moves, with hands held up to testify, before the more aerial maneuvers born of the Lindy hop began. Afterwards, a nonette in rows of three sidled against one another as varying groups took their turn in front, reveling in proximity and close contact.

But the lessons of the third movement tie the first two together. Its slower, sparser, simpler moves color a second backdrop of 16 line drawings -- a notebook or musical score of order and chaos which, for all its diversity, remains strikingly monochromatic. The axial weather dances and prismatic motion studies of the initial movement come back again, but slower, in even starker, more deliberate contrast to the unchanging backdrop, as if to underline a point.

In this culminating "Groove," Brown seems to be saying that the jazz -- and the dance, for that matter -- is not what's on the paper, the computer screen, the video or the compact disc. It exists only in the people making or experiencing it; living in each of us only in the moments we engage in it. The visuals -- a music score, a movement sketch, even possibly a dance review -- may be instructive, but at best they still only point the way. They're not the thing itself. It isn't dance until you give it breath, and make it move. It isn't jazz until you do it.

A Taoist bebop teaching, by a world-class choreographer and composer -- one well worth the seeing.

For more on Trisha Brown, see Tom Patrick's Flash Review 1, 5-3: A Dream-Upon-Awakening, and Ben Munisteri's Flash Review 5-10, Designing Woman. The first is accompanied by a video clip.

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