When San Francisco audiences came to see Baryshnikov dance, a few years back, in an evening-long tribute to the Post-Modern choreographers of the Judson Dance Theater, a 60’s hotbed of experimental dance from which Trisha Brown emerged, many walked out, or were at least furious, because the dances that they had paid so dearly to see the aging Russian star perform were a little dry, not very dancey, mainly nonmusical, and definitely unemotional. What was Baryshinikov thinking?
One can guess that what he was thinking was that most of the people in the audience would never pay to see dance like this if he wasn’t dancing it. And that more people should see it. But why? Tricia Brown is perhaps the most prominent surviving heir to that experimental time. And though she has evolved from church basement theaters and site-specific dances to touring engagements in the biggest Opera Houses of Europe, her work still has the same Judson flair–that is, an experimental quality that breaks down traditional ideas about dance and substitutes others that take some getting used to. Mainly she employs a flouncey, easy-going, California-looking way of moving, and then takes this vocabulary and turns it inside and out and endlessly around.
At a February Cal Performances engagement at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, Brown presented three long pieces, "Set and Reset" (1983), "Present Tense" (2003) and "Groove and Countermove" (2000). While each demonstrated the particular language she has developed over the last 35 years, full of interesting ebbs and flows, points of contact unlike other choreographers, and a modern dance sense of disregard for spectacularity, the cumulative effect of the work lacks variety.
In the ballet world, Balanchine could choose a piece of music that would automatically create a new world in which to place his classically-based explorations. Brown’s whole world, on the other hand, is about her brand of movement. Brown uses music as background texture and there’s not a sense that each new dance ventures into new territory. That’s not necessarily a criticism, it just makes it harder on audiences, who are more inclined, based on every other art form, to search for novelty, contrast and diversity.
"Set and Reset," with its Robert Rauschenberg newsreel collages and Laurie Anderson’s enigmatic score, created a sensation when it debuted in 1983 and still looks like quintessential Brown. She has her dancers clustered along the edges of the stage, and the constant comings and goings offer neither characters nor movement themes to hold onto. It’s all very ephemeral.
"Present Tense," her latest work, starts with a juicy solo for Neal Beasley, in red and orange, and as the rest of the dancers emerge in duets and amoeboid group sections, an actual compositional nod to the structures of John Cage’s Sonatas And Interludes For Prepared Piano gives the piece more shape than the previous work. Cage seems a good choice for Brown, a little lyrical and a little strange, all at the same time. Brown seems to be concerned to a much greater extent in the possibilities of lifts and dancing off the ground. Gravity isn’t as much as denied as avoided.
"Groove and Countermove" (2000), was part of the trilogy of pieces Brown choreographed over the last few years, exploring "new jazz." The music here, by Dave Douglas, had its moments, especially an ending that built up rhythmically. Overall, however, both music and dance were yet more fairly slow-going explorations with some interesting moments. The set, by Terry Winters, a backdrop with graphic squares that seemed to suggest abstracted musical scores, brought light and sharpness to the piece. The climactic section, when the dancers suddenly formed lines, was almost shocking, after two hours of amorphous spacing. It was the kind of departure that a ballet choreographer might have made ten minutes into a piece. It took Brown thirty years. What is revolutionary about Post-Modernism may not be the great experiment, but the tenacity with which its practitioners cling to their notions. But what pleases even educated, discriminating audiences may not, in the final analysis, be revolutionary.