I took my seat for White Bird’s first show of the 2012-2013 Uncaged Series feeling quite the cynic—reluctantly as I really didn’t want to feel jaded about the Trisha Brown Dance Company, but despite myself as I’ve lost faith in major dance production.
The Newmark Theatre is an awkward dance venue for Portland. The seating has wonderful slope and sightlines, but those 1,200 square feet of stage and those 880 seats make it a gamble to stage dance on. That’s a whole lot of empty to bet against from a presenter’s point of view. It’s a dauntingly large venue to stage the challenging work I’m keen to advocate. The work that I have seen at the Newmark tends to go a bit too well with wine and leaves me too satiated to consider it vital.
Here’s what I’m walking in with.
I rarely see choreography that I care about. More often than not I’m forced to sedation by performance of controlled composure or turned off by dance pandering to a reductive psychological realism (WE ARE THE ROMANTIC BODIES SPEAKING DIRECTLY OF LOVE W/O WORDS! EMOTION! YOU! IDENTIFY! WITH!) -“a bunch of stuff.“
I have bad associations with “phrase work” or “count-based choreography.” It reads too much as product for me—cramming the potential of dance into the format of commodity. Of course, setting definite movement to counts (conventional choreography) allows an artist to construct ravishing moments. But even when I marvel along with everyone else at the spectacular dancing in something like, say Kidd Pivot or more recently Fluid Hug Hug, what I’m left with feels like a soda high—unsustainable and ultimately leaving me depressed and disembodied.
The kind of virtuosity that renders itself in take-away moments of spectacle disheartens me. It not only erases my kinesthetic agency by locating the performance entirely on stage—as opposed to between the stage and my relational body in the seat—but it purloins my belief in dance by making the form feel empty of integrity. Parading impressive feats on stage gets ticket sales and ovations, but I doesn’t get my respect.
Trisha Brown’s choreography is primarily count based and characteristically continuous; there’s no real hard stops. The program White Bird is presenting offers a fluent shorthand on Brown’s decades-deep body of dance work.
The show opens in 1978 with a master work of Judson-era postmodern dance: the seminal solo Watermotor, here performed by Leah Morrison. Then we’re in 2011 with Les Yeux et l’âme, and I’m braced for the worst. A giant, beautiful backdrop (Brown’s visual art), dancers in billowy, understated grey costumes, French baroque music: I didn’t like where this was going…
Five minutes into Les Yeux et l’âme and I’m wondering why someone like Brown—who has achieved mountains drawing our attention toward nuance—would now want to stage such grandiose and formal work. Was this new work smug? It certainly wasn’t the Man Walking Down the Side of the Building I fell in love with. I have a hard time approaching a piece like this because its style and overall demeanor seem complicit with so much of the commercial contemporary dance product that I disdain. Was this that? Could I still believe in the royalty of Brown?
Given a few more minutes, I melt to clay. My viewership telescoped into the grey staging. I didn’t care that my parents would have liked the costumes. I didn’t care how courtly formal or politely palatable the tone felt. I was bobbing in a verdant ecology of composition and performance. This was a choreographic voice I could believe and trust in, and on stage, a feast. I welled up a bit as a singular artistic logic opened through time and me.
All I can think to add to all the words that have been written about Trisha Brown is my immense appreciation for her integrity and artistry—which I saw in her company’s bead-like execution of all the loose wrists and carriages of momentum: an acutely considered parade of dance and an exquisitely crafted vision in movement.
My night at the Newmark returned some lost faith.