Impressions: The Sorrow and the Ecstasy of Trisha Brown
I’ll never forget the whoosh of emotion I felt two years ago at the Whitney Museum as two of Trisha Brown’s dancers began to swivel their wrists in the opening measures of Brown’s 1971 piece Accumulation. For five minutes, as the folksy Grateful Dead anthem Uncle John’s Band played over the sound system, two dancers built ever-longer phrases out of the simplest gestures: a sway of the hips, a turn of the head, a bend of the arm. Here was dance reduced to its most basic elements: the body, in motion, over time. No fuss. (The virtuosity, of course, lay in the mental exercise of remembering the long sequences of unrelated movements.) There’s a video on YouTube of Brown performing the dance at BAM in 1996; watch it. The wonderfully free-wheeling music—music from another, more innocent time—magnified the sense of freedom and devil-may-care. Here was a dance that immediately transported you to the experimental mind-set of the sixties. It felt witty and smart and somehow revelatory: the building blocks of dance, laid bare. It was the embodiment of Brown’s self-portrait as “a bricklayer with a sense of humor.”
The same was true of Man Walking Down the Side of a Building—an astonishing act of physical daring—and, of course, Spanish Dance. In the latter, as Bob Dylan’s gravely voice intones the melancholy ballad In the Early Morning Rain, a woman in white work clothes begins to sway her hips. As she slowly raises her arms in a “Spanish” pose, she advances, still swaying sensually (her eyes lost in thought). Eventually she bumps into the woman standing a few feet in front of her, grinding into her with her knees, causing the second woman to begin swaying her hips. Movement begets movement. The second woman raises her arms, and the chain reaction continues, five times, until the cluster of women reaches the wings, and the song ends. It’s beautifully simple, smart, poetic, filled with possible interpretations.
The trouble comes when these flashes of inspiration become half-hour, or even hour-long dances. The laid-back development that constitutes Brown’s working method (the “bricklaying”) become wearisome. The attention flags, and a kind of mental torpor sets in. When will it end? It’s an experience I’ve had over and over, watching Brown’s company in works like Roof Piece (1971), Foray Forêt (1990), and now Astral Converted (1991), being revived this week at the Park Avenue Armory (through July 14).
The setting is breath-taking: the cavernous, nocturnal depths of the Armory’s Drill Hall, where the Cunningham Company held its farewell performances last year. Anything performed here acquires an epic dimension. For Astral Converted, bleachers line one end of the hall, facing a large platform. The set, by Robert Rauschenberg, consists of several metal structures (towers), of varying heights, dotting the stage. Each holds a grid of lights, and as the dance begins, the lights react to the movements, though not spectacularly so. The towers also have wheels, and the dancers move them around the stage several times. The music is by John Cage: an insistent drone of woodwinds, trumpets and tubas that bring to mind boat horns and air raid sirens (I’ll admit that the score drove me to near-desperation). The combination of Cage and Rauschenberg immediately brings Cunningham to mind, but Brown has none of Cunningham’s interest in complexity and extreme technical difficulty.
The choreography begins with a multitude of small movements performed while on or near the ground: kneeling, dragging, crawling, collapsing on folded elbows, lying down, bending a leg at the knee, pushing up again. The limbs are loose, the shifts casual, the affect workman-like. Dancers come and go, sometimes giving each other cues (“go!”), since the timing would otherwise be difficult to synchronize. There is a long section in which some dancers push large brooms, filling the space around their fellow dancers like pieces in a puzzle. The brooms add a touch of humor, too, since one can’t help but think of their everyday function; at one point they are used to support the dancers’ bodies in brief suspended lifts. There is a quotation from Spanish Dance, in which dancers press against each other and are forced to move by momentum of the person behind them.
As the piece advances, the gestures become bigger, and jumps are introduced; there is even a hint of virtuosity. Later, the dancers interact in ingenious ways; one dancer is held aloft on another’s knees or feet, or pushes off a partner’s back. But neither the emotional tone of the dancers nor the quality of the dancing changes much: throughout, the joints are loose and floppy, the faces impassive. And then, with no warning, the piece ends.
The reactions of the public are mixed. Some seem transfixed, others begin to lose the battle with weariness. For me, about halfway, a kind of impatience set in, a feeling that the dance might last forever, or at least until the dancers collapsed from exhaustion. For all Brown’s intelligence an craft, the wit of the early pieces seemed like a distant memory. I missed it.
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