Motion Capture

Choreographer Trisha Brown loves her robots—and other technology, too

Celebrating your 70th birthday by playing with robots sounds like a fine idea. And if you're Trisha Brown and the robots were created by Japanese artist Kenjiro Okazaki for your new dance, then sophisticated wit and naive delight stir up more serious issues, such as what constitutes humanity and why inanimate objects sometimes seem alive.

Brown's intermittent forays into technology have become increasingly complex. For her 1983 Set and Reset, Robert Rauschenberg's montage of black-and-white film clips are projected on four surfaces of his suspended set. In the 2005 how long does the subject linger on the edge of the volume . . ., sensors worn by several dancers trigger both Curtis Bahn's sound design and motion-capture images by Paul Kaiser, Shelley Eshkar, and Marc Downie that materialize, expand, decompose, and float like ghosts across a scrim in front of the dancers.

There's nothing ghostly about Okazaki's creations for Brown's I love my robots, which premiered on the enterprising Peak Performances at Montclair series, preceded by the two earlier works. Each of Okazaki's tall twin poles of blond wood fits into a bowl set in a small, wheeled, wooden platform. Controlled by a backstage crew, these slender figures (collectively called DekNobo) glide around the stage; when the bowl rocks, they sway. (It's fortunate that Peak Performances, which co-commissioned the work, gave the artists and technicians two two-week rehearsal periods onstage.)

Pole apart and together: Brown with her mechanical partners
Mike Peters
Pole apart and together: Brown with her mechanical partners

Brown's elegant program illustrates changes in her style over the years. In the enthralling Set and Reset, one of several pieces the choreographer calls "unstable molecular structures," the stage seethes with fluid, darting movement complications; the performers—peaceful human particles—constantly form and dissolve patterns and alliances. Later in the '80s, Brown began to mold her choreography so that viewers could more easily grasp shapes within the silky tumult.

In how long, moments of rest enhance the impression of a dialogue among performers, images, and sounds. The pauses are even more marked in I love my robots. When Sandra Grinberg begins alone, to the initial quiet crackling and rain of Laurie Anderson's score, the two "DekNobos" sidle across in front of her, frame her, retreat. Not only does Grinberg occasionally arrest the rich flow of her dancing, the wooden sentinels' rhythms seem governed by a desire to watch and respond to the dancers. When Grinberg curls her long body over Todd Stone to begin a duet, the robots start speeding around as if turned on by the pair's easygoing athleticism. Soon after Hyun-Jin Jung and Melinda Myers appear, the DekNobo get positively loopy, wobbling on their bases while four people tangle and rock.

Just as a matter-of-fact conversation enters Anderson's clever score, so small gestures punctuate Brown's quieter moments. Stone places a hand on the floor; Jung leans in helpfully. Leah Morrison makes her fingers walk over the floor. The atmosphere is both playful and serious—buoyant like the movement. The eight wonderful performers (including Tony Orrico, Tamara Riewe, and Judith Sanchez Ruiz) wear bright-colored pants and tops of stiff but translucent material (designed by Elizabeth Cannon). Okazaki's black backdrop bears tiny white slashes, and Jennifer Tipton's lighting turns the stage into a sunny place.

The robots are attentive, even hopeful; the dancers pay them little heed until Brown enters for an improvised solo. The DekNobo jiggle with excitement. This woman is looping around them, touching them! She lies down and runs through a few moves from her early Accumulation. They seem worried. She takes them for a walk, or maybe a little race. One of them emits high, squeaky sounds. "What?" she says, and advises the two to have a meeting. "See you Saturday," she tells them and walks offstage. The endearing epilogue goes beyond reinforcing the title; it wittily queries how we define being alive.

 
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