American Original

Balance and the beauty of silent poise

Trisha Brown is one of the most influential choreographers of our time. A principal revolutionary associated with the legendary Judson Dance Theater—a group of artists who challenged the restrictions of institutionalized art and its set of standardized rules. She paved the way for a new generation of dance and performance. Ms. Brown has been honored by foreign governments for her groundbreaking artistry and ongoing contributions to the lexicon of dance; many of her works are considered masterpieces. Her living legacy was clearly on display at John Jay College, December 2–14, especially during an evening of repertory works from Brown’s oeuvre. Set and Reset, which premiered in 1983, is a seminal work, not just in the annals of dance, but for the choreographer as well. The last dance of Ms. Brown’s Unstable Molecular Structure cycle, it was the first dance in which she set a solo on a dancer other than herself (Stephen Petronio). While the innovation of incorporating film technology into performance may seem dated in the context of today’s convention of mediatized performances, most of these use video and other electronic media, as opposed to motion picture movement. Twenty years old, this piece still moves on a ground that has been left largely unbroken. That it was a collaboration with Laurie Anderson and Robert Rauschenberg is almost secondary to its historical and epistemological significance. It was a rare pleasure to experience this dance live: to be in the presence of bodies mimicking the experimental editing approaches used in four simultaneous film projections and the inextricably linked score—a score that though anchored in a specific period (the 80s) still feels current. The opening action—one dancer held aloft laterally by three, moving her legs as if walking, defying gravity perpendicularly, navigating the surfaces of the walls and curtains with her feet—remains one of the most iconic sequences in American postmodern dance. The centerpiece of this program was Geometry of Quiet, an elegant, sparse work, created earlier this year and set to a score for flute by contemporary Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino. Mario Caroli, the flutist who inspired the composition, performed the score live, a breathy, organic blend of familiar and unexpected tones and timbres. Large white cloth banners that resembled sails formed the theatrical set, the first one designed by Ms. Brown. The choreography was performed by a quartet while two additional dancers manipulated the set on opposite sides of the stage. Two dancers facing each other slowly cantilevered, filling the air like an inkblot forming on paper. A trace, a gentle caress along the length of an arm or a foot initiated a series of weight-sharing duets. Later, a third dancer was inserted in the middle of one such duet. There was playfulness to some aspects of the action, which was embellished by the lovely costumes, sparklingly detailed sand-colored jumpsuits designed by Christophe de Menil. While the piece could represent seagulls on the shore, something deeper is suggested; a pathos, an intimacy that is not seen in the other works. The dancers connections are personal, emotional, and not solely geometric. At times, perhaps because of the score and its simulation of jets overhead, and because of the time and care the dancers take with each other in carrying out their activities, it was difficult not to think of the days in New York following September 11.