The surprise of last Thursday’s Trisha Brown Dance Company’s performance at Page Auditorium was that Brown, a choreographer of near perfect and visionary dances like M.O. and Monteverdi’s Orfeo, offered few surprises in her new Trilogy, performed to the gorgeous and sometimes haunting live jazz music of Dave Douglas. Brown’s usual idiosyncratic movements, and her gift for mining human passion in highly conceptual works, were both glaringly absent in this production. The choreography remained contained by the music, oddly, when jazz as a form offers a portal to improvisation and the unpredictable maze of musical jamming.
Five Part Weather Invention began beautifully with the dancers in rainbow-colored jump suits. A female soloist jetted her arms in salutes and turned around her center, a move that would recur all evening. Duets became trios and the lights came up. The 10 dancers formed an S-shaped line moving downstage, referencing a chorus line. From it, they scooped air with their arms, and jumped out from the line, then back in, like puppets pulled by the strings of the music. Individuals lost their balance and fell down on the stage throughout the piece, but an opportunity for humor was lost by the lack of response from other dancers, and in the uniform way they fell.
Although they congregated and danced in perfect synchronization, the dancers didn’t exchange emotion, and because a step or gesture of one dancer never seemed to ripple through to change the movement of another, they all appeared to lack shared joy in the levity of the dance. Brown’s usual strong gestural line looked clipped to fit the sinewy compositions. The jetés were lovely, the jumps spidery and inspired, but this trail of dancers never connected, and the dance didn’t take the audience anywhere but there.
Before Rapture to Leon James, one in the six-part series of pieces commissioned over three years by the Doris Duke Millennium Awards for modern dance and jazz music collaboration, a lone female dancer in gray (Diane Madden) crawled and flexed on the floor in a prelude to the main piece. Above her a line of theater lights hung, and above that, work lights. To her left, a totem of cymbals dangled. The dancer flailed and hunched crablike on the floor, looking off- stage as if for a spiritual presence. After her exit, men and women in ’50s skirts and casual pants and shirts entered, swinging and swaying in duets, enjoying the music, but never letting it press them to express the freedom that the music implied.
When the group convened, they danced in a line across the stage, shaking their hands and slapping their feet, referencing vaudeville and tap dancing. The smiles on their faces were smiles of absorption in the music, and no partnering occurred. To Brown’s tribute, most ordinary people can identify with the way it feels to dance alone and feel oneself merge with melody and rhythm. Yet, a moment of connection–where the joy of the music prompted interaction–would have taken this piece someplace more engaging.
Groove and Countermove, the ADF- commissioned piece, began with another prelude by the talented soloist Diane Madden, this time danced inside a stepladder. Her extraordinary balancing became a metaphor for the balance of the choreography itself, and one wished that the ladder might tip for a moment so as to spark the dramatic tension of a juggler almost missing the ball. Dressed in monochromatic casual attire, the other dancers drifted fluidly on and off stage. A backdrop was lowered and lit from behind to illumine its charcoal drawings of helixes and globes. In front of it, the dancers repeatedly moved in turns and jumps, and then stopped to strike poses, collapsing out of the poses into the dance again.
Near Groove‘s end, the music quickened, and the dancing followed. Movements changed from jazz to modern with high, arced arms, and strong legs struck in odd configurations. Here, finally, the dancers connected to one another, the music and, ultimately, the audience, via their seamlessly coherent, passionate movement. For a few minutes, the crowd glimpsed the true talent of Trisha Brown. The company delivered the promise of an impulsive kiss given by one dancer to another early in the piece. But the sustained intimacy achieved through the guileless synergy of movement and music came so late, only the hearts of the most loyal could have awakened to this burst of exquisite dancing.