Brown is Back
An Interview with Trisha Brown
by Donald Hutera
American choreographer Trisha Brown has been a dominant force in contemporary dance since the 1960s. An exceptionally limber mid-sexagenarian with a curly mop of salt-and-pepper hair, Brown is a longstanding friend and artist of Umbrella. She returns this year with a triple-bill that dips into the past while focusing on more recent aesthetic concerns.
Brown considers the quartet Geometry of Quiet ‘the first convergence of my abstract background with the new-found affection for emotion, narrative and psychology that I’ve been engaged with in opera.’ One of her chief choreographic interests was two people forming a single entity. Sometimes the second person interrupts the first’s progress, or a third closely inserts himself into a duo. The idea, Brown reveals, is to create a moment of stillness in which a shape is held in order that it can be looked at longer.
A consequence of Brown’s more measured approach is that the partnering in Geometry seems both human and exotic. The dancers’ becalmed leans, crouching kneels, assisted lifts and sudden, snapping pulls create an unusual intimacy and tension, especially in the context of Brown’s decor of tall, white silk curtains. Pulled out from the wings and held at various times and angles by two additional performers, these swathes of fabric lend Geometry a mysterious, ghostly expectancy enhanced by the soft, pearly-grey tones of Jennifer Tipton’s lighting. The intermittent silhouettes of bodies standing behind them have an eerie beauty.
The score is Salvatore Sciarrino’s breathy, soundsucking flute composition, featuring guttural coughing and fluttery, caged-bird sounds. ‘It’s extraordinary music,’ Brown said after the world premiere in Montpellier in the summer of 2002, ‘but if you’re trying to work with it [for dance] it’s very difficult because there are so many small repetitions.’
The concentration on slower, more sustained physical shapes in Geometry is in contrast to Brown’s earlier work, such as the slippery, scintillating 1983 classic Set and Reset. This was one of Brown’s most popular dances, thanks in part to a score by Laurie Anderson that features distortions of the phrase ‘long time no see’ and a steady but gentle ring of musical triangles. Brown’s other esteemed collaborator, Robert Rauschenberg, was responsible for the visual design. The dancers dip and curl beneath three screens upon which a barrage of black-and-white, pyramid-shaped film footage flickers. In this work Brown, one of its original eleven dancers, propels us through a continuous vocabulary of deceptively easily-flung, looping and loose-limbed motion. Clad in Rauschenberg’s sexy, see-through pyjama costumes, the cast exudes a textured, dynamic cool. [Historical note: Stephen Petronio, another artist with a long association with Umbrella, also danced in Set and Reset. This year his own eponymous company graces the festival at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with City of Twist, a twopart production to a score by none other than Anderson and, in a world premiere coup, her partner Lou Reed. See Autumn edition of Dance Umbrella News for full feature.]
Umbrella has already presented Brown’s Five Part Weather Invention and Rapture to Leon James, the first two parts of Brown’s El Trilogy inspired by jazzman Dave Douglas’ band Charms of the Night Sky. Dipped in bright pastel colours, the choreography in these dances is an agreeable jam of skips, swings, slides, shifts and shuffles flecked with passages of deftly feigned spontaneity. In Groove and Countermove, the trilogy’s final section, Brown and company seem to tap with greater depth and maturity into the seductive pleasures of Douglas’ music. It’s the sort of thing that could inspire a host of lesser imitations. Built out of precise detail, the dancing is beautifully calibrated and always clear in its fluctuations. Brown’s command of her craft and the stage space is readily apparent. Unlike the current crop of young European conceptualists busy pushing the dance envelope just as she did in her earliest days, Brown is now deeply attracted to movement. Her dances rarely, if ever, feel behind the times.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2003 edition of Dance Umbrella News
Donald Hutera writes regularly on dance, theatre and the arts for The Times, Time Out, Dance Europe, Dance Now and Dance Theatre Journal.
He is co-author, with Allen Robertson, of The Dance Handbook.
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