Platform Theatre, Central St Martins, London, UK; October 9, 2013
It was a privilege to be there and see her company as it has been for so long. For, after 40 years, and following Trisha Brown’s retirement as artistic director, this was a last chance to see some of her well-known proscenium works before the company that bears her name reforms. They are works that have a refreshing honesty about them, rather than the all too common evident self-indulgence of the choreographer.
The programme reflected Brown’s climb to become one of the most widely acclaimed choreographers of the postmodern era. She was first recognised publicly for her dance in the 1960s at the height of the modern dance revolution in the US. After founding her company in 1970, she went on to push the limits of both contemporary choreography and the space in which it is performed.
Whether the company can still be definitively called ‘postmodern’ is questionable. Is this simply a convenient label that comes from the social historical context out of which it emerged? Today’s modern and contemporary dance is arguably much more offensive to current boundaries. Against today’s dance, this programme for Dance Umbrella seemed comparatively subdued. What cannot be argued is the continuing prestige of the company, and its role in influencing dance today. It and she have been keystones in the development of artform; and that overrides any debate over form, labels and definitions.
For Dance Umbrella the Company presented a historic journey through the range of its works. “Astral Convertible” (1989), set to a score by John Cage, the life and professional partner of dance pioneer Merce Cunningham, is thoroughly resonant of some of the latter’s works. Maybe it’s the silvery blue unitards and the score, but there are definitely particular similarities with Cunningham’s “Beach Birds”, made two years later.
The dance is highly percussive; the movement itself perhaps best described as ‘Release-based contortion’, while simultaneously displaying the body in a thoroughly natural way. Although emotionless and purely movement based, there are animalistic nuances. Static poses and stilted action are interrupted with various calls of “Go!” from the performers. There is much work on the floor. Brown’s choreography always conveys the strength and flexibility of her dancers, qualities not usually championed in the postmodern stereotype. Those dancers were also solid, confident, athletic, and above all, committed. The dance also compliments Cage’s score although being far from minimalist.
“Watermotor” (1978) shows a different choreographic approach. It’s a three minute solo that defines itself through the model of improvisation. Neal Beasley gave a concentrated performance in which he twisted, jumped and flicked his way across the stage space. It was a completely engaging performance against an often distracting silent backdrop.
“I’m going to toss my arms – if you catch them, they’re yours”, takes its title from a line taken from a transcript of directions Brown gave to her dancers early in the rehearsal process in 2011. Large industrial fans stand geometrically stage left adding an odd but apt soundscape to the beginning of the piece, the audience straining to hear any intonation in the whirring. It seems Cage had also made an impression here. The movement though is notably more suggestive in terms of narrative than is usually associated with his or Cunningham’s work.
Most striking were the seamless transitions between the individual sections of the piece and the clarity of the dancers’ lines. That clarity was evident despite the baggy white trousers and tops masking any personality and effectively ‘uniforming’ the work. These outer layers are eventually discarded – doing their own dances across the stage as a result of the wind – and each dancer finishing up only in a leotard or boxer shorts. In contrast to the two previous pieces, the movement appeared to have more choreographic motivation. It was more than simply an intriguing movement set. Richard Landry’s score gives the same impression, adding energy to the dancers’ work. As before, that work included much natural ease of movement, ease that made lifts look easy. A section for four males, the dance filled testosterone was particularly enjoyable.
This was a company thoroughly connected. It was a company where the dancers were completely in synch with each other, which gave for a relaxed, confident air. They maintained the momentum throughout in three most mature performances. It did appear at times that the score, or lack of, prevented the dancers from fully engaging with the movement and stretching it to its limits. But not doing so gave the dance an air of ease. It was a night to remember.