For the last six years, Trisha Brown has made dances to music; at one time the only sounds accompanying her choreography were footfalls, spoken commands, and the whoosh of flying bodies. She doesn’t approach music compliantly, but invents structural analogies to what’s going on with Bach or Webern or Dave Douglas, rather than galloping off on the obvious rhythms or melodies.
Groove and Countermove, which premiered at the Lincoln Center Festival, completes her El Trilogy to elegant compositions by jazz trumpeter Douglas (now available on CD). As in the first two sections, Five Part Weather Invention (1999) and Rapture for Leon James (2000), Brown plays off the improvisatory aspects of jazz and images drawn from vintage films of dancing at the Savoy Ballroom. Little gestures of hands, hips, elbows, and shoulders, done in a line, evoke those old moves without copying them. Brown’s interest in lines, which surfaced back in the ’70s, most often takes the form of a file stretching from the front of the stage to the back. It may disintegrate into canon, curl in on itself, or sweep across the stage, spitting out a dancer or two as it goes.
There’s a point in Weather when the musicians (on trumpet, accordion, violin, bass, tenor sax or clarinet, and percussion) go nuts—manhandling their instruments, coughing, and so on. Brown, who has always liked playing process against finished work, responds. A dancer crashes to the floor, gets up, and finds her place in the phrase; the audience gasps, then chuckles when others topple too. Keith A. Thompson starts a follow-the-leader routine; the others, not knowing what he’s going to do with his arms, follow intently a split second later, fraying the unison. This is a dance in which a lift looks like an unexpected midair collision, and where someone can be pushed backward onto the stage by a kiss.
Between sections, Brown lets us watch the pipes holding the equipment for Jennifer Tipton’s splendid lighting descend and Terry Winters’s backdrops rise or fall. (The one for Groove bears 24 little variations on the full-scale black-and-white painting for Weather, suggesting squalls and turbulence laid over what might have started as a music manuscript.) We also have the pleasure, while the crew works and a couple of performers stretch, of seeing the superb Diane Madden, dancing with unusual ferocity of line during the first interval and partnering a tall aluminum folding ladder in the second.
Rapture has a doodling-about feel. Groove is steadier. The performers wear jumpsuits (by Winters) in various bright colors. You don’t just see Brandi Norton and Katrina Thompson, you see persimmon and lemon embarking on a duet. They explore the glories of Brown’s vocabulary: its coltishness, its constant soft unfurling and bending, the twist of one body part against another. The movement is so fluid that its precise designs come as a surprise, like a leaf floating on a current. Others kite through: Kathleen Fisher, Abigail Yager, Mariah Maloney, Seth Parker, and a tall, loose-limbed newcomer named Sandra Grinberg.
At moments, various performers freeze. Douglas, in his turn, keeps cutting off and bringing back a sweet lazy-day tune. When Keith Thompson and Stacy Matthew Spence embark on a duet, violinist Mark Feldman begins to sound as if he’s dropped into a gypsy café. Musicians and dancers seem bound together in creative zest. In her opening solo in Weather, the magnificent Fisher fairly pulls the music through her body, matching its textures, exploring its crannies. Brown is fortunate to have such collaborators, their minds as agile as their bodies.
Religious ultra-conservatives see dancing as a sin. The fact that dance so ebulliently lends itself to the depiction of sin may fuel their mistrust. Dances about sin sin doubly, I suspect; they not only get choreographers’ creative juices flowing, they lure people to decadent spots like Jacob’s Pillow.
The Seven Deadly Sins, a hit with audiences at the Pillow, was dreamed up by Robert La Fosse of the New York City Ballet and Chet Walker of Broadway fame, who doled out the major transgressions to seven extremely diverse choreographers and allotted them 10 minutes apiece to outrage heaven. Unsurprisingly, none of those given this juicy opportunity—La Fosse, Walker, David Dorfman, Lawrence Goldhuber, Richard Move, Jamie Bishton, and Annie-B Parson—wag particularly admonishing fingers. “So take a look at this sin,” each seems to say. “Is there a problem here?”
The performers range from virtuosos like the vibrant young Rasta Thomas, who explodes into spins and leaps at the drop of a plié, to the marvelously kooky actress-dancer Rebecca Wisocky from Parson’s Big Dance Theater. A piece works best when the sin emerges in all its dread glory. The already tubby Goldhuber tackles “Gluttony” in a fat suit, giving love of food a gleefully erotic edge. His post-picnic dream features a lewd frankfurter, who’s hurt when he catches Goldhuber in flagrante delicto with two drumsticks. Liz Prince’s costumes for three chocolate kisses are particularly tasty. The darkest, yet unjudgmental, view comes from Move, who expresses “Lust” through a mesmerizingly hermetic, self-absorbed solo for Helène Alexopoulos. Wearing a gleaming black bobbed wig, caged in a spotlight on the floor (lighting design by Tom Sturge), she coils and uncoils her long, slender body into extreme mating positions with almost creepy slowness, her occasional shudder or silent scream suggesting she’s trapped in her own erotic performance, a phenomenon for two paparazzi to rush in and snap.
Parson is the only choreographer who nods to the Brecht-Weill Seven Deadly Sins, even though most of her music is by John Zorn. Molly Hickock sings a Weill song, and all five women (Hickock, Wisocky, Tymberly Canale, Kate Johnson, and Krissy Richmond) in Parson’s terrifically bizarre and witty “Greed” spout German and squeaky Teutonic gibberish. Inhabiting what appears, via lights and Claudia Stephens’s out-of-date dresses, to be a moldering mansion, they covet whatever interesting object they come upon (gloves! red shoes! Oh my God, a white umbrella—I must have it!).
Dorfman sees “Sloth” as purposeless activity that diverts people from their true work. Bishton and Paul Matteson compliment each other on their skill at doing nothing. (Hickock and Wisocky join them in this witty talking-dancing work.) Bishton, drawing music from cello suites by Bach and Britten, attempts to show “Envy” through formal patterns and shifting tensions that destroy the harmony of a circle. A pirouette competition escalates into sparring. Stephanie Liapis is ousted and squabbled over. “Envy,” though full of interesting movement, doesn’t seem fully shaped yet. Walker’s “Anger” looks more like a display of aggressive pride and showy steps by Alexopoulos, La Fosse, Thomas, and Desmond Richardson; and La Fosse consigns Pride to the finale, a runway strut in which all, garbed in gold by Karl Lucifeld, get to parade their dream roles. A sin? Spiritual death? Hel-lo?