Trisha Brown is one of a select group of choreographers who made history in the 60s at New York’s Judson Theater, and still continues to make creatively challenging choreography – just witness her recent triple bill presented at the South Bank as part of this year’s Dance Umbrella.
The dancers are dressed in mouth-watering opal-fruit costumes and the music ranges from faintly religious to plain dippy.
The opening piece, Five Part Invention (1999), is a delight from start to finish. Here, Brown manages to marry a rigorous compositional intelligence with a playful, off-the-cuff style of delivery. The dancers are dressed in mouth-watering opal-fruit costumes and Dave Douglas’s music is a whimsically scored cocktail (trumpet, accordion, double bass and violin) that ranges from faintly religious to plain dippy. The dancers begin gently, playing out a little game of catch and carry. The games become more fun in the subsequent episodes: two dancers are trailed attentively by another pair, shadows struggling to keep up and at a loss for what to do. A round of Simon-Says has the performers chuckling as they copy the movements of their leader. Lines of dancers weave and plait together in sophisticated formalist mode, but the seriousness of the construction is lightly mocked as one dancer after another falls heavily to the ground in mid-flow – a choreographed “oops”. Brown’s combination of exacting composition with childlike delight is at once fascinating and disarming.
Brown's choreography brings to mind the motion of waves and particles – it's hard to separate the movement from the movers
Twelve Ton Rose from 1996 focuses our attention on the formal construction of the work – and it too is fascinating, though much starker in tone. The title is a play on “twelve-tone rows”, a reference to the serialist method of musical composition of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern (the last providing the music for this piece). Brown’s choreography brings to mind the motion of waves and particles – the ripples and impulses of motion eddy and cluster through the groupings so that it’s hard to separate the movement from the movers. Movement is mirrored and echoed, dancers displace each other and set off further waves of motion; a line is sent into a spiralling vortex that leaves a clumped residue of crouched figures in its wake. This is stark choreography, but grippingly so.
The final piece shows Brown attempting a different mode. Rapture to Leon James, made earlier this year, harks back to the swing era, to the Savoy Ballroom and the Lindy Hop. With its jazzy score (again by Dave Douglas), and Wurlizter set (by Terry Winters) – in which hangs a string of golden discs, that could be CDs or cymbals – this piece shows Brown dabbling with popular dance forms. The movement echoes the Lindy Hop, with bouncy steps and hops, little juts of the hip, easy rolls of the head and sassy shakes of the hands. Anyone who’s seen the amazing Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers performing in the film Hellzapoppin’ will spot the movement references. But here, the dancers seem forever on the verge of launching into the Big Dance Number, repeatedly whispering “five, six, seven, eight” – and then they just keep on jittering and patting out steps like a practise run. This, combined with a less stimulatingly complex composition than the two previous works, became a source of frustration for me: I was constantly waiting for something more to happen, for the dance to rev its turbines and shift up a gear.
Nevertheless, this triple bill of choreography was an evening that lifted my spirits and reaffirmed my belief in dance as movement; and I wouldn’t ask for more.