Trisha Brown: Gimme Something To Believe In

Dance Review: Trisha Brown Dance Company @ The Joyce

(Photo Credit: Montclair State University/Mike Peters 2007 – “I Love My Robots”)

This review is going to be difficult to write, not because I can’t find anything to say, but because I know what I’m going to say goes against four decades of critical praise for the “granddame of postmodern dance,” Trisha Brown. Staging a trio of works from the last eighteen years, Brown comes to The Joyce Theater backed by some critically substantial artist collaborators. But the results of these collaborations, touted largely in the Ms. Brown’s print materials, are more impressive on paper than they are in reality, where they are often distracting, fruitless, and in one case, just plain awful. I would try to make the case for looking past these “external” elements in order to really take in the dance, but the recurrent presence of the gaudy and the futile, for me, called into question Ms. Brown’s general taste level and artistic commitment. This is certainly a position I wasn’t expecting to find myself in, especially after having enjoyed her company’s performance last summer at Lincoln Center, and considering the magnitude of Brown’s artistic celebrity and lauded history.

Foray Forêt is a much anticipated revival of a work created in 1990 but not seen since 1994. The work is billed as the fourth collaboration between Brown and visual artist Robert Rauschenberg, which is where the problem starts. The old guard of dance artists should be just as mindful of updating the visual elements of their repertory pieces. It isn’t just opera and ballet that can look hopelessly outdated and dusty.

In the case of “Foray Forêt”, Rauschenberg’s costumes are frumpy, iridescent gold and silver numbers that frequently obscure the female dancers’ upper bodies. The men get to dance topless, wearing only flowy genie pants. I don’t see what the costumes have to do with the forest, or adventure, or, more importantly, the dance. They look like the futuristic-chic outfits one would have seen in the latter days of Star Search. But worse, they disrupt the reception of the dancers’ bodies, which are given the dual task of executing Brown’s patented virtuosic fluidity with newer (at the time), more subtle vernacular movements that seem to be always competing with bunches of gold lame, or whatever they’re made of.

The projection on the back wall was harmless; shifting patches of lights that looked liked colorful suggestions of forest shadows, or more to me, patterns of the human iris. But even these never really set the dance, which did its best to stand on its own despite their unwieldy entrapments.

The work opens with a copse of dancers, swirling, shifting, limbs extended in little lifts while others simply stop, facing some other direction. Here, Brown is the better visual artist, breaking the flatness of the stage with plumes of movement conceived with the spherical orientation of the body in mind.

In a solo that followed, Judith Sanchez Ruiz simply stood out as dancer of remarkable control and expression. Her acute attention to what Brown calls the “delicate aberrations,” or subconscious movements, was engrossing, a level of performance she maintained throughout the piece. Todd McQuaid and Tony Orrico also turned in lovely performances.

The work continues with hermetic variations of these ideas; the group chaos moments with small, concentrated partnering, including some unexpectedly visceral lifts, and even one awesome move where a woman and three men jump toward each other in the air; the men sandwich the woman with their chests and she spins 180 degrees, landing perfectly. There were also some wonderful uses of the wing space–the dancers mostly off-stage, darting their extremities just into the theater–which also confirms Brown’s genius for expanding the audience’s perception of the performance area.

But the dance’s forward momentum was slowed by one of the other external conceits of the work: The inclusion of the Columbia University Marching Band playing live music from the lobby.

Soon into the dance, you can detect a vague ruckus somewhere in the theater. Eventually, the noise grows and you hear that it’s the sound of the band and that they are in the lobby (so from where I was sitting, they were literally beneath my seat). It was definitely a titillating idea, but the band remained there, never materializing, simply playing one John Philip Souza tune after another; with the exception of the final tune, an uncredited rendition of Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams.” Go, Downtown!

The thing is, there hundreds of things that could have been done with the band; things that could have really given them a well-worked presence in the piece. Instead, the choice to include them felt more like that home grown conceptualism that may have gone far enough in the sixties (I felt the same way about Yvonne Rainer’s “RoS Indexical’), but that today simply does not stand up to scrutiny. We don’t want to see your idea, Ms. Brown, we want to see the work of art. Things continued downward from here.

“If You Couldn’t See Me” is a concept solo from 1994. It also happens to be set to one of the worst piece of music I have ever heard in my life. No question.

In the work, a lone female dancer performs with her face always facing upstage, so you never see it, hence the title. But when I read in the program notes that the concept was to have the dancer always have her back to the audience, highlighting the spine as some sort of abstract, architectural reference point, and then I see the work, and not only is the defining factor the upstage turned face–as the spine is continually in flux in Brown’s choreography, and not always visible–but Robert Rauschenberg’s bland costume, a cream dress with two draping panels in front and back, literally cuts the spine in half. This is supremely contradictory to the stated mission and a dark sign that these artists are more content with their ideas than they are concerned for making their work. Just saying.

To make matters much worse–nay, intolerable–Robert Rauschenberg “composed” the score, which amounted to little more than Bob sitting at his synthesizer set on “organ” mode, tinkering away at the keys, and simply improvising the way someone who doesn’t know how to play a keyboard would improvise. Annoyingly brash electronics tones suddenly jut through a quiet collection of mostly diatonic pitches. There is no discernable musical logic, not even by the standards of chance or indeterminacy. Quite to the contrary, Rauschenberg seems to be stuck in trying to make real things happen, so you get random triads mixed with predictable clusters and surprisingly cheesy tonal moments.

And again, this all seems to reflect on Ms. Brown’s capacity to make artistic choices. She chose to let Robert Rauschenberg compose the music. She is the director. The responsibility of the final product lies on her shoulders. The question is, how much does she still care about making work that is truly groundbreaking, that is impeccable in its construction, meticulously conceived, and that utilizes the maximum resources she has at her disposal?

Leah Morrison, as the soloist, was obviously wonderful, but honestly, I could barely appreciate her artistry because of the crappy score. Robert Rauschenberg has no business writing music, and someone should take his instruments away. The music was surely insulting to Ms. Morrison’s gifts, much like the costumes from “Foray Foret” were to the entire ensemble.

“I Love My Robots,” a piece Ms. Brown made last year, took up the final portion of the program. The robots, designed by Kenjiro Okazaki, are two small boxes from either of which protrudes an eight-or-so-foot card board pole, which sways as the little boxes, controlled by remote control, move around the stage in a combination of circular and perpendicular patterns.

It wasn’t the most successful piece physically, which I would have to give to “Foray Forêt,” but Ms. Brown’s knack for changing the terms of our perception of the body was in affect. The way the “robots” (I don’t know if you can call them robots since they are remote controlled; I believe robots are supposed to function on their own) keep the bodies in a state of spatial flux is appealing.

A collage score by another big name collaborator, Laurie Anderson (at least she is a musician), was interesting, with Antony Hagerty’s voice murmuring occasionally through sound bites of random noises and string instruments.

Costumes by Elizabeth Cannon weren’t terrible, but still seemed questionable as a collection of cut-off sweat suits in opposing earth tones. I found the belled capri sweat pant to be particularly ill-conceived.

After a lengthy but nicely danced duet by Todd Lawrence Stone and Hyun‑Jin Jung, a shadow of a figure is seen passing almost invisibly along the upstage wall. It is Ms. Brown. She disappears off to the left, the stage clears, and then she re-enters to finish the piece with a solo; well, trio, if you count the robots.

I’m not going to write specifically about what Ms. Brown does on-stage. The choice to dance at 70 is a major one, and one that could be done well. I have no qualms with the idea. But, as much as Ms. Brown may be hailed for using limitations to generate groundbreaking ideas, here, she falls short.

For me, a young observer of dance who does not have the institutional, cultural, or historical indoctrination that others in the dance community may have, the power of Ms. Brown’s presence alone was not enough to woo me. I wanted more. I wanted to see her design a work of conceptual grit and formal complexity that addressed her body and that communicated something about her experience as a dancer; as a dance creator in her later years; as a living legend. Instead, you get about ten minutes of meandering physical musings that leave you empty handed.

Simply put: I expected more.


  1. I agree with your comments just about completely. While the idea of a marching band that never enters the theater, playing jolly military marches, reminded me that we’re all in our own little worlds of “delicate aberrations” while a distant war is unendingly going on, the overall piece never gelled. The gobo projections on the back wall were ridiculous. Robert Rauschenberg’s “music” was, you’re right, something that shouldn’t have happened and Ms. Brown should have got rid of it. And finally, the robots, other than sometimes providing a shifting frame of reference for the dance, looked like wobbly push-brooms awkwardly sliding around onstage. The curtain call betrayed their unresolved status: they weren’t exactly included in the line of dancers taking their bow, and they weren’t exactly un-included, either. They looked uncertain as to whether they were actually invited to the party… which is pretty much how they looked during the entire piece.

    BTW I thought Laurie Anderson’s music was vague, flaccid and meandering. Maybe that worked in the context of the movie it was made as a soundtrack for, but it didn’t help the dance at all. It just seemed half-baked and complacent – a disappointment.

    Your comments were right on the mark.

  2. Did you see — James Wolcott gave your post a big huge shout-out!

  3. Hi Tonya-

    Yes, I totally saw that! I’m super flattered, and it’s given the site a nice little boost.


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