Theater archives

Trisha Brown Rounds Up Four Decades of Choreography at BAM


Some of us only dream about flying; Trisha Brown launches her dreams onto the stage. And after her opening-night BAM program spanning 40 years of work, we the enraptured spectators rise not just to our feet but surely several inches off the ground.

In the stunning Planes (1968), the first of her “equipment pieces,” three women (Diane Madden, Tamara Riewe, and Laurel Tentindo) clamber smoothly around on a vertical white wall with holes for feet and hands to anchor in. Wearing suits with white backs and black fronts, or vice versa, the performers sabotage our notion of gravity. It’s as if we’re looking down on them from a building window, or—as Jud Yakut’s film images play over them—they might be above us, flying over a city as seen from a plane window or falling toward us, away from a receding skylight.

O Zozony/O Composite, created in 2004 for three étoiles of the Paris Opera Ballet, begins and ends with an aerial image. Manuel Legris and Nicolas Le Riche face each other, holding Aurélie Dupont between them. She’s laid out horizontally, arms spread, and as the men walk toward the back of the stage, they rotate her slowly, as if she were the propeller of a plane they might launch at any minute. Vija Celmins’s backdrop of a star-crowded sky, Jennifer Tipton’s clear, understated lighting, Elizabeth Cannon’s simple white costumes, and Laurie Anderson’s score situate these beautiful people in another zone. Dominating the muted strings, light percussion, chimes, and crickets, Anderson’s soft, recorded voice tells in Polish what might be an old story, with an occasional high, trilled “Brrrt!” like a bird’s warning call.

Brown has honored the performers as denizens of the ballet world and, at the same time, devised magical, fluid complications for them. A move that might seem familiar quickly becomes something else. Le Riche lifts Dupont high, but as he carries her along, Legris falls to the floor and raises his palms to form stepping stones for her. At one point, Dupont assists the men—gently propelling one into a turn, lifting the other’s leg—even as they are twisting and lifting her. The superb dancers perform gravely and unaffectedly, walking on and off the stage without fanfare. For the men, turning Dupont while she balances on one pointe becomes a looping over-and-under that requires intense concentration. In this smooth, suspended, unhurried world, making beauty together is a daily pursuit.

Glacial Decoy (1979) is the first piece in which Brown used attention-getting costumes and décor she couldn’t climb. Both were designed by Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), to whom she dedicated the season. The delicious ploy of this piece is that it’s too big for the stage. Dancing in front of Rauschenberg’s gorgeous black-and-white photographs of places and objects, Melinda Myers and Riewe own opposite sides of the stage. If one moves too close to center, the other has to disappear into the wings. Center is home for the second duet, performed by Leah Morrison and Judith Sanchez Ruiz, but when all four appear together, the piece slides on and off the stage, even, for a second, drawing a fifth dancer (Tentindo) into view (the photos travel, too; each one appears on the left and exits on the right). The women, with their springy steps, flyway limbs, and odd, fussy little moments, swirl easily about their allotted space, their bell-shaped white dresses flurrying around them. If butterflies could gallop, this is what they’d look like.

The dazzling new L’Amour au théâtre is set to excerpts from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1733 opera Hippolyte et Aricie, but Brown doesn’t venture into plot. Instead, she riffs off dance forms like passepieds, gavottes, and rigaudons, alluding very occasionally to the words of the arias. Wearing Cannon’s draped white tops and orange pants (the women), or gray tops and white pants (the men), the eight dancers slip silkily into duets, trios, quartets, and so on that are rife with invention. Movement patterns unspool out of nowhere, overlap, elide, echo, transform. We’re watching a peaceful, resourceful society at play.

The choreographic stitchery—lusciously resilient and more close-knit than the delicate, curving shapes and slashes on the painted backdrop by Brown—tightens and loosens as it rides the music. Myers and Dai Jian move with emphatic muscularity when Rameau offers grandeur, and sprightly, bucolic music makes performers pick up their feet in a hornpipe. A soprano exhorts “À la chasse!” and all of them (the marvelous cast includes Todd Lawrence Stone, Hyun-Jin Jung, Todd McQuade, Morrison, Riewe, and Tentindo) lope in a cluster like one gigantic horse, and later, Myers and Morrison, seated on male shoulders, greet each other like ladies off to the hunt.

Right here on Earth, the Elysian Fields, in which complexity keeps resolving in endless delight.