Much postmodern dancing traces its lineage to Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown, and Twyla Tharp. The physical languages they invented in the early 1970s redefined fluidity, subtlety, and complexity. Their audiences had to develop agile eyes—the ability to follow movements tossed about the stage, lighting now on one dancer, now on another.
In her latest work for American Ballet Theatre, Tharp shows us what she loves best about Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn—not its autumnal splendor but its inner workings, the intricate blend of counterpoint, the byplay between foreground and background. In their pale costumes by Santo Loquasto, ensemble dancers appear like courtly ghosts, almost always at the rear of the stage; small squads of them flicker past; couples enter from opposite sides, criss-crossing or exiting the way they came, like curtains closing and opening, or a string of paper dolls unfolding. Two couples most often seen as a quartet and five principal pairs in tawnier colors thread through a gentle hive of almost constant activity. The flying lifts, the assisted skids, the ballroom waltz steps, the lift in which the woman sits on air with her legs stretched out in front of her, the spins—we see these and more in all kinds of lights (and I don’t just mean Jennifer Tipton’s masterful illumination).
The dancing spawns echoes and shadows. Tharp winds symmetrical designs tight and then sets off little explosions within them—dance as contagion. In the plotted melee, I don’t see how a man about to exit picks up his partner; I notice him holding her when another man near him swoops his woman up into the same position and all four disappear. The piece focuses on couples, doubling the designs. Partners occasionally snatch a moment alone together, but we glimpse the crazily clumsy way Vladimir Malakhov heaves Paloma Herrera around through a momentary opening in the center of the picture. A few variations have applause-promoting endings: Malakhov’s witty fit of indecisiveness as he pursues Herrera offstage, Julie Kent’s drop from a high lift into Angel Corella’s arms, the flourish that ends the propulsive section starring Susan Jaffe and Marcelo Gomes. But often one variation slips into another, and Tharp, at play in her material, avoids big contrasts—the ballet’s flaw is its consistency of tone. I’d have to see it more than twice to track the activities of all these people, plus Sandra Brown and Herman Cornejo, Irina Dvorovenko and Maxim Belotserkovsky, and the foursome of Oksana Konobeyeva and Gennadi Saveliev with Ekaterina Shelkanova and Carlos Molina. They go about their gleaming affairs with an extraordinary suppleness, both of limbs and of intellect.
The nymphs-and-shepherds dances in Trisha Brown’s exquisite 1998 Canto/Pianto are drawn, like the work’s theme of love and loss, from Monteverdi’s opera Orfeo, which she directed. A line that weaves through itself widens as the superb dancers swing one another up like bells, and then bursts out into a beautiful tangle of lifts and pulls and runs that challenges the eye. Some of Kathleen Fisher’s grave gestures to the aria “Possente Spirto” are echoed by multiple Orfeos in a front-to-back line (whoever wears a black jacket becomes the hero). In another scene, Mariah Maloney dances between Orfeo (Keith Thompson) and Eurydice (Abigail Yager), doubling now one’s spare steps, now the other’s. There’s more stillness to this work than in most of Brown’s oeuvre, yet as you watch a long solo of restrainedly plangent gestures for Fisher (as the messenger), your mind moves the way your eyes usually do in her work, and meaning is grasped as apparition.
Jamming is as rare for Brown as storytelling. But her new Rapture to Leon James (her second work to a score by jazz composer Dave Douglas) celebrates a king of Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom during the lindy’s heyday. At one point, the dancers mark time in a circle while Fisher and Thompson charge into wild-legged tosses and flipped lifts.
Brown has chosen to capture the feeling of improvisation and challenge. The Fisher-Thompson duet looks unplanned, rough around the edges. Douglas’s subtle music doesn’t always give a straight-ahead beat, so Thompson counts while his colleagues, lining up beside or behind him, keep watch. Before the band starts to play, while Brandi Norton and Fisher mirror each other, Norton hums a high, barely audible little tune.
None of the artists involved is re-creating an era. Terry Winters’s “visual presentation” is a column of cymbals, and Jennifer Tipton turns the cyc various vivid colors. The movement suggests a vernacular style without imitating one. It’s as if Brown and the dancers had studied old photographs and film clips, collaging the steps and gestures—maybe even transferring them to other parts of the body—and then performed the new material in a manner a few provocative degrees distant from the “real” thing, making our minds do delighted chin-ups.
The remarkable solos of Montreal choreographer Marie Chouinard are like obsessions dredged out of some combination of private experience and the collective unconscious. Busy with her company, she has now assigned to Lucie Mongrain, Carole Prieur, and Élise Vanderborght a retrospective of 11 solos dating from 1978 through 1998.
The earlier pieces delve into the body’s workings. The briefest involves drinking a glass of water, sinking into a second position plié over a pail, and peeing—a tidy summation of our devouring/excreting essence. In Sunday Morning, May 1955 (1979), Mongrain simply jumps over and over to the sound of church bells, her miked breath rasping on after they stop. Mimas, Moon of Saturn (1981) elegantly transmutes the sensation of masturbation into a spine-tingling chant, with Prieur’s long hair, dipped in a tub of water, lashing out a climactic fountain of fluid.
The choreographer usually sets clear premises and sticks to them. In a roar of sound, Prieur, wearing nipple rings and a black bird-tail, visits each of five hanging lamps, tapping out silent messages; the last lamp descends on her in a white blaze. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the terrifying 1986 S.T.A.B. (Space, Time and Beyond) is the sound Vanderborght generates: her miked boot stabbing the floor, her breath, her growl.
Chouinard constituted herself as a primal creature, a witch. Her famous 1987 Afternoon of a Faun refers to Nijinsky’s ballet in its two-dimensional back-and-forth trips across the stage, but this creature’s horn becomes a penis shoved into beams of light that frustrate her/him by disappearing. In Earthquake in the Heart Chakra, with blue face and breasts, Prieur is a fantastic ritual dancer. Uttering cryptic words like “Now is the time to dream of elephants,” she places her hat on a cymbal stand, where it assumes its correct role as something to bash while red “flames” rise up and she screams and screams. Chouinard builds powerful art from the tension between transgressiveness and artful structures.