by Danielle Owen
On Saturday January 30th, I attended the final performance of Trisha Brown Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music—potentially the last performance of TBC in NYC, due to Brown’s declining health. The program offered three different works: “Set and Reset” (1983), “PRESENT TENSE” (2003) and “Newark (Niweweorce)” (1987).
Before any music begins, movement sets the stage in “Set and Reset”—not the movement of the dancers, but that of film projected onto geometrical shapes in the center of the stage. It was difficult to see exactly what the film depicted, but it appeared to be newsreel footage, recordings of handiwork, factories, etc.—there was never a moment of stillness. The music (created by Laurie Anderson) included repetition of what sounded like a distorted railroad crossing bell and the repeated phrase “long time no see”. The idea of “seeing” was present in the movement of the dancers, who sometimes crashed into each other without making eye contact, other times narrowly avoiding bumping together by means of intricate partnering and lifts. Wendy Perron, in her tribute to Trisha Brown, states that “She has said she felt sorry for spaces that weren’t center stage—the ceiling, walls, corners, and wing space”. This idea certainly makes an appearance in “Set and Reset”—the wings of the stage were transparent, the audience could see the dancers moving on and off stage, and much of the dancing was concentrated towards the sides and back of the stage. The dancers moved in loose, swinging motions, occasionally taking breaks to jog in circles or run into another dancer. In the middle of a motion, a dancer’s arm would turn to point in a new direction, and their body would be pushed by an invisible force that way. The music acknowledged these moments, with strong beats or emphasis each time a dancer seemed to fall into a new step. Both the music and movement were connected by the idea of seeing what is next to come—the repeated phrase in the music, the sound of a train crossing, not seeing the dancer next to you and crashing into them, seeing a dancer in the wings preparing to make an entrance—the unremitting beats of the music combined with the dancer’s drops and crashes made it impossible to relax into the piece and enjoy it. I was very aware I was watching art, not entertainment.
The second piece, “Present Tense”, presented child-like movements that seemed to arise naturally from John Cage’s playful score. The dancers, clad in neon colors, moved in front of a backdrop (by Elizabeth Murray) that looked as though it was a children’s drawing— exaggerated geometric shapes filled with primary colors, giving the semblance of a sky and green grass. Similarly, the score sounded as if it was recorded in part on a toy piano. The choreography reflected the childlike air of the music and backdrop, as the dancers created a human jungle gym with the bodies. As opposed to “Set and Reset”, the choreography was less fluid and more focused on creating distinct shapes with either one body or a combination of bodies, similar to how children create various shapes with blocks. Although highly choreographed, the breathtaking lifts and partnering provided a “sense of discovery within a rigorous visual or mathematical order”. The music, too, seemed less random than the music accompanying “Set and Reset”, almost mathematical in its chaos as opposed to anxiety-inducing. The dancer’s interactions with each other were refreshingly innocent and youthful after the seriousness of the previous piece. At one point, four of the dancers cooperated in a complicated lift sequence—the dancer left out of the group rolled and squirmed on the downstage floor, having a tantrum because of her exclusion. The wings were opaque, as the focus of the piece was on the interactions of the group of dancers and not the space within which they were dancing. As opposed to the meaningful anxiety of “Set and Reset”, “Present Tense” felt entertaining, as though the audience was watching a group of children at playtime—some climbing on top of each other, some solo in a corner entertaining themselves, accompanied by the sounds of a child playing a toy piano.
“Newark” had the dancers in plain gray unitards moving downstage of various primary-colored backgrounds (by Donald Judd) that would randomly be lowered and raised throughout the piece. The music, too, seemed random—at times the piece was danced in silence, and other times a one-note organ sound blared through the theater. Often, the music would arise during the middle of a flowing movement, as if the choreography itself couldn’t hear the music (or vice versa). The dancing, however, was less random than the previous two pieces. The calculated choreography seemed slower and heavier, although that may have been the result of it being danced mostly in silence. Frankly, I was annoyed by “Newark”—I couldn’t make sense of the relationship between the random music and the deliberate movements. Does there have to be a relationship between the dance and the music? What’s the purpose, then, of the music—does it even need to have a purpose?
Trisha Brown is regarded as one of the foremost innovators of post-modern dance, as she used her work to ask questions about the nature of movement, the logic connecting it with music, and the idea of dance as entertainment versus dance as performance. “Set and Reset”, “Present Tense”, and “Newark” each asked the audience to suspend the fixed relationship between music and dance promoted by other types of concert dance. In “Set and Reset”, the music reflects the movement of the piece—unrelenting and anxiety-inducing. The movement of “Present Tense” reflects the music of the piece—childlike, playful, experimental. In “Newark”, the music and choreography seemed entirely disjointed and disconnected. Leaving the performance, I wondered: How can the choreography for one piece seemingly arise out of the music whereas in another, the music seems to be a product of the choreography itself? And furthermore, as in “Newark”, do music and movement need to have any relationship at all? Naturally, I left the theater with more questions than answers—exactly the kind of reaction a good performance should incite.
Danielle Owen is a junior at Barnard and Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Nine Ways of Knowing.