By Jennifer Krasinski
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It began when Lina Wertmuller approached Trisha Brown about choreographing her 1986 production of Bizet's Carmen. Brown was startled. During the '60s and '70s, almost all the dances made by this brilliant radical were accompanied only by talking or simply the muted slap of bodies against surfaces. Later she commissioned scores from composers like Robert Ashley and Laurie Anderson, but never considered collaborating with a dead person. To her amusement, she found herself going about her loft, warbling, "Yah ta di-di, di ya ta di-di...," hooked not so much by Bizet's seductive "Habañera" as by a new arena of possibilities.
Since then, Brown has set dances, with stunning success, to com positions by Bach (M.O.), Webern (Twelve Ton Rose), and, most recently, Monteverdi (directing the 1607 opera Orfeoa highlight of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's spring seasonand fashioning its key motifs into Canto/Pianto, a haunting piece for her own company set to excerpts from the opera). Now she has em barked on a new sort of musical journey. Last month at Jacob's Pillow she premiered Five Part Weather Invention to a score by jazz trumpetercom poser Dave Douglas, played by a quartet of musicians (the piece makes its New York debut at Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors on August 13). Her next project involves collaborating with Dr. Billy Taylor. These composers are not only alive and available for consultation; in a very deep sense, they talk back. What with the improvisational elements built into Douglas's score and Brown's gift for finding innovative strategies to echo musical structure, her dancers and his musicians groove on one another in very sophisticated ways. In addition, the horizontal lines on painter Terry Winters's black-and-white backdrop can be likened to score paper on which his arresting scribbled shapes and a dancer's silhouette can be seen as "notes." Brown has even begun to notice that Douglas is at times "reading" not only the dancing but the set. And, says she, delighted, the music is altering with his response.
It was eye-opening to see Canto /Pianto and Five Part Weather Invention on the same Jacob's Pillow pro gram and to sit the next morning in the Pillow's garden talking with Brown about the very different musical practices that informed her choreography for these two creations. As one who's been working scrupulous magic with movement and form since the '60s, she does not, as you'd expect, take any easy outs in working with music. Some choreographers have barely a nodding acquaintance with the scores they dance to; Brown is after a more intimate relationship. To penetrate Bach's great Musical Offering, she immersed herself in baroque polyphony. At rehearsals for Twelve Ton Rose, Webern's score (12-tone rows, get it?) was always open to the right page. The singers gathering to begin work on Orfeo were amazed that the dancers already knew the words and music better than they did. Of the Canto/Pianto solo set to Orfeo's great aria "Possente Spirto," Brown says, "I was trying to arpeggiate Kathleen Fisher's body because that's what you hear: these exquisite 32nd-notesreally delicate, intricate shifts in sound." Brown also plumbed the opera's text as a source of images and structures. The dancers, standing for a chorus of spirits, keep Abigail Yager suspendedwheeling her through the air, "flying" her, distilling her into something close to pure apparition. But she could also be Eurydice.
Monteverdi might be astonished by Brown's take on music he wrote almost 400 years ago; Douglas and Brown, however, share a kinship born of more than their contemporaneity. She's made a dance to Webern's music; he's done "transpositions" of Webern, Stravinsky, and others. She's just surfaced from the early baroque period; a little fillip of baroque melody filters through in one section of his Weather. Like Brown in her field, Douglas can't be called traditional. His instrumentation for Weatherdouble bass (Greg Cohen), accordion (Guy Klucevsek), violin (Mark Feldman), and trumpet (himself)is unconventional, and so is his music (one of the four honors he walked away with at the June 1999 Jazz Awards was for being "innovator/explorer of the year"). The night before I talked to Brown, the musicians had played a preperformance concert for the Pillow's "Inside Out" series. "It really is like getting close to God when you hear art that fine," she said, eyes alight.
Brown studied Mura Dehn's historic footage of vernacular dancing at the Savoy Club in the '30s, but the choreography's most discernible connection to jazz dancing lies in its fast-footed moments. However, Brown's distinctive style has always shared certain traits with that rich African American form: looseness, fluidity, wit, playfulness, an easy compliance with gravity, a lack of full-frontal aggressiveness.
Here's Brown's recipe for Weather's "Aria I": "Take a full-bodied, luscious phrase [performed by Fisher and Keith Thompson] and give a high-velocity rhythmic sequence to two other dancers [Brandi Norton and Todd Stone] who are very smart, very gifted at this, and tell them to get in as close to that phrase as they can with out getting hit." The result is as unpredictable as weather and as rife with disciplined recklessness as first-class jazz. In what she calls "instinctive reactive behavior to danger, memorized," Norton and Stone dodge about like sheepdogs nipping at their charges' heels, or basketball players getting as close as possible to opponents without fouling.