Trisha Brown Dance Company
Proscenium Works, 1979-2001: Astral Convertible, Watermotor, I’m Going To Toss My Arms – If You Catch Them They’re Yours
London, Central Saint Martins, Platform Theatre
9 October 2013
Platform Theatre website
One of the leading innovators of postmodern dance, New York-based choreographer Trisha Brown, has been making work that equally challenges her dancers, her audiences and our underlying assumptions about dance for almost four decades. Her calling card is an aesthetic of apparent ease – seemingly casual, deceptively simple tilts and falls combined with rigorous little details that are grounded in a strongly rhythmic pulse. This evening of repertory works designed for the theatre (as opposed to Brown’s many other stamping grounds – loft spaces, parks, pavements, the walls of buildings) celebrates the evolution of that style with a trio of pieces drawn from across the choreographer’s career.
The evening’s opener, Astral Convertible, is a curious choice to begin with. Made in 1989 during her “Valiant” phase, in which Brown chose to eschew the effortless aesthetic in favour of something much heavier and more strenuous, the piece is strongly reminiscent of fellow New Yorker Merce Cunningham’s work. It’s not just the silver-grey unitards and John Cage score that bring Cunningham to mind; here, Brown’s material is unusually full of the lunges, flat-backed arabesques and hinged elbows that were the late choreographer’s trademarks. There’s even a set by Robert Rauschenberg – a long-term Brown collaborator who is also a direct link to Merce.
This is not the company’s native language – and it shows. The familiar Cunningham vocabulary looks oddly mechanical on the limber TBDC dancers, their bodies not quite matching the demanding placements of the style. It’s as if Prince were to cover a song by David Bowie – both are artists I greatly admire, but neither quite inhabits the other’s native territory.
Watermotor (1978) is much more like the sort of thing Brown-watchers have come to know and love. A 3-minute burst of arm-scooping, torso-folding, sweeping, flicking and jumping in invisible puddles, it’s as good an introduction to Brown’s work as anyone could wish for and I could have happily watched it ten times over. Originally made as a solo for Brown herself – the piece is performed by two male company dancers this week; Neal Beasley gave a good account of the work on Wednesday.
2011’s I’m Going To Toss My Arms – If You Catch Them They’re Yours finds Brown returning to her loose-limbed, improvisational Judson Theatre roots. The title comes from an instruction given to the dancers during rehearsal, and there’s much about the piece that seems to derive from rules, tasks and movement games. The nine dancers of the company, accompanied on stage by nine large stage fans whirling at different speeds, are costumed in loose white shirts and trousers made of gently rustling paper.
The fans provide both soundtrack and décor; the paper costumes contribute the chance element so beloved by the Judson group. As the seams on the paper shirts wear thin and the trousers begin to flap free of their wearer, the dancers remove them item by item; this gently disrupts the visual continuity of the company, so that individuals emerge from the previously uniform mass. The fans blow the discarded costumes gently to the side of the stage, like autumn leaves in the wind, and slowly the company strips down to a new costume of colourful shorts for the boys and leotards for the girls.
Although its title alludes to studio improvisations and the movement material seems as beautifully spontaneous as any Brown solo, the ensemble are as tightly-plotted and carefully in unison as any neoclassical company. Those casual scuffs and flicks must have taken hours in the studio to synchronise; the effect is mesmerising, as if a body dancing casually down the street had somehow managed to do it in quadruplicate.
Like all pioneers, Brown will always have her detractors (although anyone who doesn’t love Set and Reset can never truly be my friend); it’s wonderful to see the company back at Dance Umbrella where they always seem assured of a warm welcome.
While at Central St Martins, it’s worth making the detour to see Billy Cowie’s Art of Movement (http://danceumbrella.co.uk/jenseits-art-of-movement-extracts), an intriguing 12-minute installation filmed in 3D. The film requires the viewer to wear blue-and-red specs that look like they belong on the cover of a TV Times from 1978, but the results are infinitely more sophisticated.