Labels like “ordinary” and “everyday” have often been pasted onto Trisha Brown’s movement, especially when someone is alluding to her early work as a member of the iconoclastic Judson Dance Theater. But when has anything she’s ever made been ordinary? Walking may be ordinary, but getting a dancer (to whom she was married at the time) to walk down the side of a very tall building is not your usual stroll (Man Walking Down the Side of a Building, 1970). Many people have rummage sales, but what choreographer stages one underneath a cargo-net ceiling with clothes strung on it, through which dancers have been crawling (Rummage Sale and Floor of the Forest, 1971)? A performer romping around with a film projector strapped to her back so that she acquires a little bouncing-off-the walls double doing the same dance. . .is that an everyday idea or image (Homemade, 1965)?
Making mischief seems to have been imprinted on Brown from the beginning. She messes with our eyes, makes us see space and time differently. Remember her Glacial Decoy (1979)? She built a dance that was too wide for the stage it was performed on, so that one of its four women might have to her movement in the wings? This serious, thoughtful artist has always enjoyed fooling us with her brilliant structural games. That has remained true even as she developed her movement style into a uniquely evasive kind of virtuosity, and even as she allowed traces of narrative to sidle into her works. Think of her titles: If you couldn’t see me (1994) or how long does the subject linger at the edge of the volume (2005). . . .
Brown founded her company in 1970, and its 40th anniversary celebration has continued into its 41st year, with revivals and re-envisionings of older works, plus new ones. The group’s recent performances at Jacob’s Pillow featured a work from each of four decades, and you could see clearly what changed and what remains the same. The movement is simplest in the 1973 Spanish Dance. Five women in plain white pants and long-sleeved matching tops stand profiled in a spaced-out line across the front of the stage. When Bob Dylan’s voice stumbles into “Early Morning Rain,” the woman at the back of the line starts trudging forward in baby steps, hips swinging, arms rising slowly in imitation of a flamenco dancer’s port de bras. When she reaches the woman in front of her, her knees and feet nudge that person into motion. Pretty soon, the audience gets it and starts chuckling. In the end, a five-layered female sandwich bumps into the proscenium arch, halting just as the song ends.
Set and Reset (1983) is not a witty spatial game like Spanish Dance. It, too, challenges your eyes and your ideas of form, but it’s bent on defeating expectations. It’s one of the dances that Brown terms her “unstable molecular structures,” and there’s no predicting the outcome of anything. The semi-transparent wings into which the dancers never fully vanish, the hanging polygonal sculptures by Robert Rauschenberg that capture montaged black-and-white film clips; Rauschenberg’s pale, filmy costumes silk-screened with newsprint; and Laurie Anderson’s questioning voice in her original musical score—all these combine with the choreography to create an image of fluidity and impermanence.
The seven dancers slide in and out of what might become formations and alliances, but these either don’t resolve, or coalesce so elusively and quickly that you can’t grasp them. The movement, even though energetic, has a loose, casual dynamic. The performers often swing one knee to the front, throw a straight arm into the air, or hang a leg put to the side, but these moves aren’t emphasized and immediately twist or melt into something else. People spring into the air as if dropping spongily down again were of equal importance. When they bump into one another, they appear unaware of what caused them to do so and shrug off in a new direction. All is slippery, complex. There’s no point in trying to parse a scene in which seven people all perform different steps in close proximity.
Brown had tamed her rambunctiousness by the time she made Foray Forêt in 1990. Only somewhat, though. The dancers in their golden clothes by Rauschenberg pause occasionally to let your eye alight before they slide away, their limbs and bodies slipping into invisible, intricate channels. When they collide in midair or use another’s thigh as a springboard, you see cause and effect, however speedy. Brown was having physical problems when she made the piece and worrying she might have to retire. The concluding solo she made for herself (now performed by Leah Morrison) suggests a choreographer quietly assessing her own movement vocabulary; her company members stay in the wings, now and then reaching a leg or an arm into view, like fragmented memories.
The piece is a foray into a forest that perhaps evokes one in the Pacific Northwest, where Brown grew up. Things glint into view as you move through a forest, trees obscure then reveal, objects appear and disappear, and you can’t always tell where a sound is coming from. Ideally, Foray Forêt is performed with a live marching band outside the theater. It approaches from far away, is heard faintly, gradually becomes louder, and then diminishes. At Jacob’s Pillow, of necessity, the band was on tape, but strategically placed speakers created a semblance of that illusory village beyond the confines of the stage.
Lighting is a crucial part of Brown’s visions. Rauschenberg lit Set and Reset with Beverly Emmons, and Foray Forêt owes some of its glow to him and Spencer Brown. Jennifer Tipton’s gift for purity serves Les Yeux et l’âme by creating a kind of Eden. In 2011, Brown separated this dance from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s one-act opera Pigmalion (1748), which she directed and choreographed—an event produced by the Festival d’Aix, the Holland Festival, Brown’s company and William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants. As Pygmalion, the opera premiered in Amsterdam in 2010. (I wish I’d seen it there; Brown’s work in opera has always been distinguished by the way she melds the singers and dancers into an intimate ensemble.)
Les Yeux et l’âme floats upon and wreathes around Rameau’s supple, honey-tongued dance tunes. From the beginning of her career, Brown has been in love with forms—at first, ones she created to generate movement. Once she began to use existing music as accompaniment, it was the music’s structure and atmosphere that she allied herself with; rarely does she phrase her movement to its melodies, rhythms, or climaxes.
The dancers in Les Yeux et l’âme (Neal Beasley, Elena Demyanenko, Dai Jian, Tamara Riewe, Nicholas Strafaccia, Laurel Jenkins Tentindo, Samuel Wentz, and Morrison) wear simple clothing by Elizabeth Cannon: pale blue tunics for the women, gray pants and tee shirts for the men. As in all Brown’s works, they’re superbly sensitive to the nuances and gentle complexities of Brown’s movement.
One thing you notice right away is how—coming and going, joining and separating— they wind closely about one another, whether in pairs or groups. Often a dancer curves an arm to reach over and around another’s waist and swing that person off the ground. They form wreathes and arches through which comrades slip. At one point, they assemble into a line stretching away from the audience. There, they create a bewitching, three-part contrapuntal pattern that turns a fence into a sprouting hedgerow. The image is as ornate and as controlled as an 18th-century garden, with a breeze waiting to muss it.
The lobby of the Ted Shawn Theater at Jacob’s Pillow exhibits drawings that Brown made in 2005. She calls them “The Handfall Series.” Their slim black lines loop and skim over the page, sometimes forming a shape your eye can identify. The explanation is that one hand was attempting to draw the path formed by the other hand as it moved over the page. Sometimes a vague outline of fingers emerges. Try to imagine doing this. Only an artist with Brown’s entrancing imagination would conceive of such a venture. It’s like attempting to pin a flower’s windblown shadow to a wall, all the while laughing because you can’t.