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 Orfeo—a highlight of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s spring season—and 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 trumpeter–com 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-notes—really 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 suspended—wheeling 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 Weather—double 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.
Developing—exploding—the juxtaposition of “lusciousness” and disruptiveness, Brown comes up with some witty inventions. In “Bounding Lines,” Fisher, Norton, Stone, Thompson, Yager, and Stacy Matthew Spence break out of a jostling throng to line up and perform a phrase in canon, one count apart; this, she explains, “puts the head of the eel in counterpoint to the tail of the eel. Which I just love!” Later, gathered into a squad, the dancers perform as accurately as possible a set phrase for feet alone, while attempting to copy Thompson’s improvised arm patterns. (Another point of comparison between Douglas’s world and Brown’s: jazz musicians play around with a tune; Brown’s intrepid dancers—including also Mariah Mahoney, Ming Lung Yang, and Seth Parker—are accustomed in rehearsal to retrograde a theme, vary it, or mix it with another on request.)
In two and a half cacophonous minutes of the “Scherzo,” the musicians play their instruments “wrong,” or play right on the wrong part of the instrument. Brown later creates her own gloss on “wrongness” by having dancers occasionally fall down during a demanding passage of the final “Aria II.” The first time it happens, you’re sure it’s an accident, and even when you figure out it’s not, you’re still pleasurably jolted whenever it happens.
Talking with Brown confirms my impression that her profound inventiveness with movement and form can cut to the heart of any music, any story. Back in the ’70s, she and a few others performed a quiet body-twister: eyes closed, they engaged their right and left arms at different points in the same simple repeating pattern. The result was bodies subtly out of sync with themselves yet in perfect control. During the Canto/Pianto aria in which the anguished messenger delivers the news of Eurydice’s death, Fisher stands planted center stage, one part of her body engaged in gestures that bespeak tragedy, while another part executes highly accented abstract material that Brown calls “neural fissures”: “I was imagining the grief of a person that we see when they fall down on some floor and wail, and at the same time the chaos that I imagine is in the body.” Here two completely separate systems merge in one dancer to create not just an interesting pattern but a deeply disturbing
enigma. Brown is one of the few artists who can enter into a compact with tradition and remain radical.