Trisha Brown has evolved from modern-dance trailblazer to opera choreographer

Three of the dances at Meany on Thursday brought to life her earlier edgy explorations.

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The Trisha Brown Dance Company performs her 1983 "Set and Reset."

Three of the dances at Meany on Thursday brought to life her earlier edgy explorations.

In 1968 Virginia Slims cigarettes opened an execrable marketing campaign aimed at “modern” young professional women, using the tagline, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Seeing the Trisha Brown Dance Company at Meany Hall on Thursday night (March 31) I thought of that line after viewing the world premiere of Brown’s new work “Les yeux et l’âme” ("The eyes and the soul"), a lovely and lyrical dance set to the Baroque music of Jean-Phillipe Rameau from his opera “Pygmalion.”

Ms. Brown, now in her mid-70s, began her career in the 1960s as an ardent experimentalist and a member of the avante-garde Judson Dance Theater, whose collection of performers and dancemakers eschewed precepts of ballet and the modern dance of Graham and Humphrey by exploring more pedestrian everyday movements, and finding affinity with important new wave composers, musicians, and visual artists of the day. 

Brown’s early works had people dancing on Manhattan roofs, or walking up walls of buildings and rooms tethered precariously by harnesses. She also created other minimalist pieces such as the brilliant solo “Accumulation” made for herself in 1971 by adding one movement on to the next to make a simple dance, or “Spanish Dance” of 1973 with several women crossing the front of the stage with the same hip-swaying walking step, arms upraised as in Flamenco dance, each ultimately bumping into the next until all become one swaying chorus line of authentic feminist drollery (take that, Virginia Slims!). 

It was Brown’s wit, her edgy explorations, and her manipulation of simple movements that made her a darling of the new contemporary dance, and by the late 1970s into the early 1980s she was ready for her next phase and began creating dances for the stage with a broadened movement vocabulary, inviting composers and designers to collaborate with her. 

Three dances from this period were on the UW World Dance Series program Thursday at Meany, and the most intriguing was 1983's “Set and Reset” a sextet that opened the evening. There was a geometric set by Robert Raushchenberg, on which a variety of film fragments were projected and which soon flew up and over the performers' heads to hover there the remainder of the work, and white-trimmed side-legs diaphanous enough to allow us to see the dancers waiting in the wings. The breezy and multi-patterned costumes were also by Rauschenberg, who, to leave no stone untouched, also got co-credit with Bevery Emmons for the lighting design. The clanging and urgent sound score was by Laurie Anderson.  

It’s a beautiful dance, replete with softened arms and legs, upright, contained torso with swiveling hips, and, at times, rolling shoulders. Movements begin in one direction then just as easily seem to turn back on themselves, sometimes with quick darting steps. It's Brown’s early simple and fluid language made fuller, faster, richer, and more complete, yet without effort or muscularity. It demands great accuracy and control to make it seem so facile and flowing, and it was a delight to see the excellent company execute it so well. 

The dancers come together often, lines forming and then seeming to evaporate, turning into duets or small groups then recombining. Dancers enter and exit, a few times partially visible as they cross over from one side of the stage to the other behind the backstage traveler, part of the action, but remote from it. It is physics at work, particles attracting and repelling, co-existing in the same space, coalescing, but never quite fully bonding.  

Trisha Brown has worked with opera companies in Europe over the last decades, and the Rameau work was originally created for a production in Amsterdam, and recently restaged as a concert dance funded by the New England Foundation for the Arts’ innovative National Dance Project. “Les yeux et l’âme” is a far cry from walking on walls or dancing underneath a set-piece by Robert Rauschenberg, but thus is art and progress, and to complete the evening we saw Brown in her older age as the semi-classicist.  

It is a sweet and beautifully crafted dance, one that gives us deeper insight into what Brown has been doing the last decade or two and one direction in which she has moved her artistry. It was unfortunate that for comparison we had no other work on the program more recent than 28 years ago.  

We see four couples in gray, often changing who’s with whom, expressing love and affection for each other in keeping with the sensibility of Rameau’s one act opera ballet from 1748. On one level the dance is quite prosaic, a relatively straightforward movement visualization of the sweet and gentle, some might even say mannerly, Baroque score. On another it is an extension of the Brownian movement philosophy. 

Though full of partnering and lifts, some quite tricky, nothing ever feels strained or pushing physical boundaries too hard. The dancers flow easily from phrase to phrase with that curvilinear sensibility so characteristic of Brown’s work, though things can change very quickly. Unlike “Set and Reset” with its comings and goings, the concept of change is present but different. In this work, rather than dancers breaking away from each other and even leaving the stage, the group is an ever-present entity, shifting over time in focus and position through individuals, pairings, or the group as a whole.   

Among many inventive moments, I particularly liked a trio of duets where the dancers started out with their feet in one position and then, by working against the weight of each other, did all sorts of delicious things with their arms and torsos before moving apart.  

The evening was completed by the brief “Watermotor” from 1978, and a revival of 1980’s “Opal Loop/Cloud Installation #72503" (1980).

The Trisha Brown Dance Company performances at Meany continue through Saturday night (April 2).


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