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February 2016

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Juilliard Dance

Published: February 5, 2016
Category: review

At BAM: A Trisha Brown Masterwork, Perhaps for the Last Time

By Rachel Straus

NEW YORK–In 1983 the Brooklyn Academy of Music launched the Next Wave Festival and commissioned the avant-garde choreographer Trisha Brown to make Set and Reset. Last week, the masterwork returned to BAM. With a score by Laurie Anderson titled Long Time No See  (after its electronically sequenced lyrics), and sets by Robert Rauschenberg, Set and Reset  (seen Jan. 28) was receiving its last performance by a company solely focused on embodying Brown’s silken, quirky, effortless style. Anderson’s lyrics, written over three decades ago, seemed prescient.

In 2009, Trisha Brown, now 79, received a diagnosis of vascular dementia. Eventually she handed over the company’s reigns to her former dancers Carolyn Lucas and Diane Madden. In 2013 they launched a three-year tour to celebrate their mentor, “Proscenium Works, 1979- 2011,” which ends this month in Seattle. It is in essence a farewell tour for the seven-member company, if not its founder’s proscenium works (her site-specific pieces, like Man Walking Down the Side of a Building [1970], will appear in non-proscenium spaces from time to time).

In addition to Set and Reset, New York’s formal farewell to Brown at BAM featured Present Tense (2003) and Newark (Niweweorce) (1987). The evening ended with a standing ovation; it was not just for the seven young talents, whose association with the company dates just a few years,   but for Brown’s long adventurous career. She made more than 90 works; most of them are abstract (no stories, no ta-da endings), yet they feel deeply social. Many are infused with a rebellious sense of fun, as seen in Set and Reset and Newark (Niweweorce). Both use Brown’s trademark jump, in which one dancer jettisons her body into the air on a horizontal (and  perilous) plane and another dancer, appearing as if out of nowhere, catches her. Then the two  go their separate ways, much like a stranger on a speeding subway who catches a fellow straphanger from falling flat and then disappears onto the platform.

Also celebrated in these two works are Brown’s carefully constructed movement canons, in which each performer moves in slightly different variations of another. Dance scholar Sally  Banes associated the effect as expressive of Democracy’s Body, also the title of her book (1983, Duke University Press), which traces Brown and her 1960s peers’ cooperative development of choreography through improvisation and structured  games.

Set and Reset is considered a monumental work because it is abstract and topical. The curtain opens on a pyramid-shaped structure, flanked by two smaller rectangular boxes, which  ultimately become surfaces for Rauschenberg’s projected black and white video images from, primarily, the 1950s. They show a world of industrial progress: train tracks, oil refineries, trucks, fast food advertisements, people marching, men in business suits in serious conversation. As  the structure is raised 20-odd feet above the stage, the dancers seep into the space, wearing loose-fitting clothes imprinted with images from the film collage.

The dancers move and interact in ways opposite to the empire-making images projected above them; they hop, fling their limbs, and bring to mind the most elegant of Raggedy Ann  dolls. Anderson’s recorded score is the bridge between Rauschenberg’s industrious projections and Brown’s playful movements. It follows an uninterrupted pulse—a consistent, understated gong- ing punctuated with harmonized motifs from an electronic keyboard. Set and Reset sets the audience forward and backward in time, shifting between conceptions of “high” and “low” art.

At its inception, Brown’s zig-zag, loose-limbed style offered a radical rejection of western dance values (that strength and control equals power and superiority). That said, Brown did not reject visible displays of virtuosity. This is particularly apparent in Newark (Niweweorce), a 20-minute unison adagio performed here by Stuart Shugg and Oisi Gjeci. Standing on one leg, they tilt  their bodies and hold positions like expert yogis. Meanwhile the female dancers intermittently bound across the stage as if to upset their focus (which never happens). At the same time, Donald Judd’s red, yellow, and blue screens, which divide the stage into four horizontal parts,  are lowered and raised; Peter Zummo’s score provides nothing more than a set of blaring sustained sounds—the type that make dogs crawl under beds.

For theater goers looking for a nice time, Brown and her collaborators defied conventional expectations about beauty and rigor. For those who like their beauty and rigor presented anachronistically, Brown has created a loving band of followers who will miss her  deeply.


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