If you go out in the woods today
You're sure of a big surprise.
The Teddy Bear’s Picnic
The Trisha Brown Dance Company shimmered into the Joyce Theatre in New York (from February 5-10) with a revival of “Foray Foret,” first performed in 1990 at the Dance Biennale in Lyon, France. Hence the bi-lingual title, though the forest suggested is clearly here. This is established by the work’s novel score: an indistinct, offstage American marching band, heard intermittently. They are playing John Philip Sousa. The hoopla of the everyday world goes on, at a distance, muffled yet cheerful.
Most of the piece transpires in silence, or silences–as if quietude could lap at you like waves. The dancers, too, are slippery. There are novel partnering strategies, and novel forms of coalescence, as if the dancers were released from a single blob of mercury, and inclined to recombine. There is a silvery calligraphy of small gestures, and the signature Brownian loft of leg, of arm, and the sweep of larger gestures that have no conclusion, but simply waft off into the choreographic aether.
Seen in the intimacy of the Joyce, the work is reminiscent of another watery, self-contained, creaturely dance—Merce Cunningham’s “Rainforest” (1968) in which dancers in torn costumes that look like partly molted skins perform among Andy Warhol’s inflatable mylar pillows. Cunningham, too, is from Washington State, as of course is Mark Morris, whose forest work is his setting of the Rameau opera “Platee” (1997).
The new-to-New York work on the program was “I Love My Robots,” new last year. The dancing is encumbered by clumsy layers of clothing designed by Elizabeth Cannon, but enhanced by a Laurie Anderson score, though not one as aurally indelible as her work for Brown’s “Set and Reset”(1983).
Here Brown reintroduces two of her previous interests -- first, the presence on stage of outer-space looking props, as in her “ Astral Convertible” (1989), for which Rauschenberg devised metallic “vehicles” with headlights. A second, more recent concern is introducing an outside element to define or confine the dancing space in ways that transect Brown's own geometric patterns. (There have been computer projections, a curtain pulled back and forth, and a stage transected by walls of sharp, moving, teeth.) This should add an element of complexity, but I haven't seen it really work that way in any of the pieces that attempt it. This new dance introduces two Japanese "robots,” but don't expect R2D2. These are, rather, long wooden poles mounted on small rectangular platforms, set in a way that allows them to gently wobble. Designed by the Japanese sculptor Kenjiro Obazaki, and operated by “Robot Technicians” Yu Nakai and Yuki Fukui, they are much ado about not much. As they zoom around, never touching the dancers, they suggest elusive goal posts, or elements in a children’s construction kit, or very very spare creatures from another world. Brown has said she thinks of them, as “ parentheses” framing the movement. Yet they most strongly reminded me of the household vacuum robots called "roombas", and I found myself thinking of them as stage hands trying to sweep up the dance and keep away from the dancers at the same time. This could have been gently humorous, but I found it gently distracting. Either you accepted the whole kit and caboodle, or, as I did, you wondered if the dance wasn’t ceding focus and power to a gimmick. Maybe the instruction never to share a stage with a child or a dog should be updated to include robots. Still, now that I'm accustomed to them, I'd like to see the piece again so I can ignore them, and find the dancing they upstaged.
The middle piece on the Joyce bill was “If You Couldn’t See Me” (1994), in which you see Trisha Brown pictured here. Just before its premiere, while preparing a preview article, I was treated, to my surprise, to a solo performance of it, in Brown’s studio, with her assistant Carolyn Lucas playing the tape-recorded score by Robert Rauschenberg, who also designed Brown’s perfect costume, which bared her fragile, supple back. It’s a dance that plays with the notion of “the gaze,” performed in its entirety with the performer facing away from the viewer, even if her head must be turned and tilted at odd angles. In the theater, when it is dark in the house and light on the stage, we are always voyeurs. (Recently, in works by choreographers including Deborah Hay and Miguel Gutierez, this traditional “fourth wall” of the theater separating us from the action has been broken, or eliminated; the viewer becomes implicated in the dance, and not only sees but is also seen.) This piece makes that permission to watch explicit. It isn’t so much that we cannot see Brown–we can see most of her–but that she does not see us.
Watching it as a solo viewer felt intensely weird---leaving aside how beautiful Brown was---like an actual experience of voyeurism. This is an experience inherent to some extent in all of Brown's work, for she never plays to the audience. Her stages are self contained. They are worlds onto themselves. Sometimes I think that this world is underwater---the loopiness and fluidity of her choreography reminds one of spaghetti dropped in boiling water; and then there is all the dissolving–-dissolve after dissolve. If there is choreography in Atlantis, it must look like this.
In the theater, I loved watching Trisha in “If You Couldn’t See Me,”, her bird- boned shoulder blades, the wonderful call- response between leg and arm, just the sheer pleasure of her limpid movement. Now, she has handed the solo down to Leah Morrison, whose back is much more odalisque. But the length of the leg--that's something like Trisha's. Nonetheless, she does not look like Trisha. You don't see her in palimpsest, residing beneath the surface. It's a different dance, a version or variation on the original, even though the steps are the same. Morrison is lovely in this dance, and the dance itself is lovely. There's no reason to retire it. And yet, it really was a custom-made thing.
Overall, the troupe looks wonderful, adept, Brownian. The appearance of Diane Madden (for 22 years a dancer in this company) in the choreographer's role in “ Foray Foret” reminded one of how long Trisha Brown has been making her slippery dances. She's dance's Circe, lulling us with a siren's song that still lures, altogether irresistibly. If it used to whisper “Watch me, watch me, watch me,” now it sings “Watch this. Watch this. Watch this.”
copyright © 2008 by Nancy Dalva