Foray/Forêt. . .the title couldn’t be more apt. Trisha Brown grew up roaming the forest in the Pacific Northwest; she worked on the 1990 piece with her company during a foray into France. Seeing it at Dance Theater Workshop as part of the two-year celebration of her group’s 40th anniversary, I’m struck all over again by Brown’s vision. Like all great artists, she sees the world with more intensity and more particularity than the rest of us.
In this dance, as in a forest, images appear and disappear the way a bird flashes into sight between trees or a gleaming fish slips to the surface of a pool, then twists and flicks back into darkness. Wearing Robert Rauschenberg’s variegated, full-cut golden (or gold-trimmed) costumes, the dancers catch the light they pass through. The changing colors of “sky” behind them (lighting by Spencer Brown with Rauschenberg) subtly alter their radiance.
Brown’s movement has a slippery, springy beauty. Words like hurtle, dive, hover, vault, slide past, and merge ignite into my mind. But that’s not the half of it. One minute, Elena Demyanenko is moving slowly in place, absorbed in small, complex, fluid tasks; the next minute, three colleagues race together from three different directions, briefly snag in midair, rebound off one another, and continue without a pause. Brown keeps the corners of your eyes busy. Several times Tamara Riewe falls out of the wings and is pulled back by half-seen Nicholas Strafaccia. One performer may drop into another’s phrase of movement as if a peaceful current has nudged her there. Another may pick up and echo a gesture that’s just appeared on the other side of the stage. Dai Jian arrives unhurriedly, just in time to catch Laurel Jenkins Tentindo as she tilts further sideways out of a quiet dance she and Demyanenko are exploring in unison.
A forest has its own sounds—in this case, footsteps, whooshes of breath, the slap of fabric against the air as a dancer whirls—but civilization often intrudes. In the case of Foray/Forêt, it was Brown’s brilliant decision to have a live marching band approach the theater where the performance was occurring, circle it, and move on. At first you think that the distant, barely audible drums might be part of some parade you didn’t know about. But shortly before the Tri-Battery Pops, led by Tom Goodkind, lets a Sousa march loose somewhere just offstage, you’ve delightedly revised your opinion. The dancers continue their intricacies unperturbed, and
Foray/Forêt ends in silence with a solo, originally danced by Brown. Performed with quiet elegance at DTW by Leah Morrison it has a retrospective air, and dancers positioned in every wing keep moving partially into view (maybe just an arm or a foot appears) and vanishing, as if the woman who performed the solo in 1990 had been recalling fragments of past dances.
For M.G.: The Movie (also on the DTW program), which premiered a year later in 1991, presents a different vision of dancing. Dedicated to the memory of Michel Guy, who had first brought Brown’s company to France (and had recently died), it ushered in a period during which Brown focused on simplifying the look of her choreography. To extend the forest analogy: Meet the trees. The eight performers wear brown unitards designed by Brown that are decorated very sparely with symmetrical yellow patches. The newest company member, tall Lee Serle, stands for the entire dance with his back to the audience and, for most of it, Riewe waits slightly behind him, also with her back to us. The dancing makes me aware of straight arms and legs swinging and thrusting—boughs and branches without a lot of foliage.
The entrancing music is played on an onstage piano by its composer, Alvin Curran, with synthesizer manipulations. A sour-sweet waltz theme disintegrates here and there into such sounds as children’s voices, heavy crashes, and objects tumbling around an echoing space. The equally magical lighting, by S. Brown and the choreographer, aims beams that separate like sprayed water at a smoky cloud hovering above one side of the stage. The dance opens forthrightly. Bathed in a coppery glow, Samuel Wentz runs and runs and runs—forward and backward, circling or cutting across the stage, altering his speed, occasionally bounding off the ground. He does this for so long that you can feel some audience members wondering, “Is this all that’s going to happen?”
It’s not, of course. Strafaccia dashes on, pushes Wentz into the air for a second, then rushes away. Gradually and gently, Morrison, Tentindo, Demyanenko, Jian, and Neal Beasley move into a spare ebb and flow of overlapping designs that hint at enigmatic relationships. Eventually Riewe, too, eases into motion, leaving Serle still stationary—there but not there, like the man in whose memory the dance was made.
In 1978, with Watermotor, Brown unloosed the inborn wildness that her earlier plain-jane structures had been reining in. You can see her dancing the solo in Babette Mangolte’s black-and-white film, projected on the DTW lobby wall. Galloping, twisting flinging her limbs into moves and countermoves, she’s a marvel of ribbony obliques; this dance could pass through the eye of a needle. It’s fascinating to see the terrific Beasley perform the piece. He’s a small, muscular man—supple but taut. His Watermotor is less about cool liquid than about molten metal that has to be worked fast before it hardens. There’s no accompaniment but the sound of his breathing. The virtuosic performance lasts about two-and-a-half minutes, and we cheer. Beasley calmly rode Brown’s bronco of a dance and didn’t fall off.
Vicky Shick ornamented Trisha Brown’s company for six years with her fluent, mysterious, meditative presence, and she brings those qualities to the collaborative worlds she’s been making for the past 25 years with visual artist Barbara Kilpatrick and composer Elise Kermani. Like all her works, her new Not Entirely Herself introduces us to a little community of women, although this time a man, Neil Greenberg, enters close to the end to join Shick herself.
As is frequently the case, Kilpatrick’s sculptures allude to female attire. A translucent coat hangs above the stage, shining in Chloë Z Brown’s subtle lighting; it’s so long that it trails across the floor and merges with the hem of a white kimono on a dressmaker’s dummy. Long silver curtains veil a far corner of the stage. Although Marilyn Maywald, Jimena Paz, and Maggie Thom begin in simple black tops and leggings, they soon reappear intriguingly attired. Thom, slender and severe, wears an embroidered jacket that alludes to military attire. Kilpatrick has costumed the more wide-eyed, playful Maywald in a sparkly gray blouse and a black skirt sprinkled with leaf shapes; Paz’s compelling, restrained glamour is set off by black dress with a full, transparent skirt and an array of straps.
In these guises, the three women are—and are not—themselves. Shick makes us see them as a family—a sisterhood if you like. In the beginning they’re confined to a low platform, perhaps four feet square. The one in middle braces herself, feet apart, arms akimbo, fists clenched. The other two lean—sag—against her, their legs tangling. Then they carefully edge around until another of them is in the middle, then the third. In all their delicate negotiations and tender connections, they remain aware of one another (even, at times, stealthily so), and sometimes of us. More than once, two of them or all three walk with their arms around one another’s waists like schoolfriends. Kermani’s music blows through the dancing like a changeable wind, delivering heavy chords, high dissonant tones, chimes, a piano melody, the patter of distant drums….
Shick creates enigmas without romancing them. Every action—seemingly thought through and performed without artifice—hints at meanings, but discourages probing for them. Everything has the succinctness of a haiku, whether it’s one woman holding out her palm and another working her way close enough to put her chin on that hand, or Thom putting one hand over Paz’s eyes and Paz reaching out to feel Maywald’s curly yellow hair. Dancing briefly together in quiet, lucid phrases seems like an accepted pastime and waving their arms wildly a mood they all share.
Each small event is crystalline. Paz stands on a tiny chair that’s been placed on the platform, holding a half orange and a glass squeezer that she’s taken from behind the platform. She squeezes the orange, sucks out some of the fruit, pours the quarter cup of juice into a glass and drinks it. That’s it. One of life’s small pleasures (or duties). Don’t try to make a bigger story out of it; it’s exactly big enough.
Watching the women is a very big pleasure. When they all join in a barely audible Spanish song that Paz has introduced, sweetly out of tune with one another, crawl around the platform, and exit, we’re sorry to see them go.
But then come Shick and Greenberg, he wearing black shoes, cut-off gray pants, and a gray sweater-vest over a light-colored shirt; she in black boots, a white top, and a sort of black sarong over leggings. When he’s on the platform, he owns it—his legs planted wide apart, his arms reaching out, his body angling as he changes positions. When she’s on the platform and not messing around in the background, she crawls to its edges and back over and over, computing its limits. Standing side by side, the two of them suggest Grant Wood’s American Gothic couple, with minimal but telling twists. Shick brings Greenberg the little chair, and he sits on it, turning the pages of the book she gives him. Again, you might imagine many scenarios, but it’s best just to let them drift through your mind with little question marks winging behind them. As the lights dim, Shick is standing close to one side of the stage, facing off, and softly moving her arms—perhaps dreaming of swan queens, wary of flight.