A fascinating thing about dance, if it is the kind that lasts, is the way it is continually embodied by new, younger dancers. Duke Performances sponsored a series of performances by the historically significant and still vibrant Trisha Brown Dance Company in different non-theatrical locations over the last weekend of October; I saw one of the hour-long Saturday evening performances in the atrium of Duke's Nasher Museum of Art. Several of the short pieces on the program were made before any of the dancers manifesting them were born.
This is not unusual, of course, but it does raise interesting questions when watching work by a living choreographer so closely identified with a particular art movement at a particular time. Does the young dancers' understanding of the 2016 world change anything essential about a work made in 1970, by a then-avant-garde post-modernist? Then, there was the thrill of the transgressive inherent in form-busting new art – now the dancers continue a tradition. Brown herself will be 80 next month (and still not as mainstream as her contemporary Paul Taylor). Does her older-body knowledge alter her recreations of her own youthful dances? I thought I detected a tendresse I hadn't seen before. I haven't seen TBDC frequently enough over the years to really answer those questions, but my guess is yes, in both cases.
At any rate, those questions kept me company while watching the eight sleek dancers in their plain white tops and pants, men and women undifferentiated. For all that it is exquisitely embodied, this is very heady dance – conceptual, based in ideas. No messy emotions or volcanic sensuality. Instead, there's the sinuosity of thought-lines, elegantly rendered, like abstract painting taken to the fourth dimension.
The first five dances were performed without music, the first four on one side of the atrium floor; the fifth a few steps up on the platform lobby of the auditorium. There was nothing to distract one from the bodies moving in space, expressing and questioning basic physical forces. The dancers in Brown's work are not people with personalities in problematic bodies: these bodies exemplify concepts like "a body in motion tends to stay in motion." In Brown's dances, the bodies explore momentum, elasticity, the balance of opposing forces, the effect of friction, and so forth, in deceptively simple choreographic designs that depend on perfectly synchronized silent counting by the dancers to maintain their compelling rhythms.
In Scallops (1973) five dancers wheeled around the outsides of a square floor space. In Opal Loops (excerpt, 1980), four dancers worked in the square, folding themselves, swinging arms and legs, and intersecting with each other in some beautiful geometries. In Leaning Duets (1970), three pairs of dancers, each pair leaning outward into a wide V shape, scuttled across the diagonal, passed through the other pairs almost magically – and once in the sequence, switched partners during the passage. Lovely and intoxicating, Astral Convertible (excerpt, 1989) included a number of improbable tiny lifts like uprushing bubbles. The audience had to change position for the fifth silent piece, Line Up (excerpt, 1976), for which the dancers went up on the raised area and did something with long sticks. I was not able to find a spot from which I could really see this piece.
However, I was perfectly situated when they moved back to the floor, this time to an irregular space on the opposite side of the atrium from where they had begun. The whole troupe lined up to perform the funny Figure 8 (1974), with its active arms, to the sound of a metronome; then the very beautiful Geometry of Quiet (2002; minimalist music by Salvatore Sciarrino) opened with an exquisite duet with very pure lines by two women, before expanding its geometries with more bodies. Although just as abstract as any of the other works, human feelings shimmered around these bodies in motion.
The concert continued with another silent work for dancer and tall folding aluminum ladder, Interval 2 (excerpt from El Trilogy, 2000), in which an amazing number of moves just seen appeared again with different affect as the dancer slithered through, climbed on and swung around the ladder. The program ended with the buoyant, dancey, Groove and Countermove (excerpt, 2000; music by Dave Douglas). The dancers were still in white, but it was as if someone had turned on the color for an upbeat finish to a fascinating time trip through Brown's eclectic oeuvre, performed in a place that made evident both the difficulties of site work, and its refreshing qualities.