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After Trisha Brown

Dance scholars have been remarking on the great Trisha Brown nearly from the day she first stepped into Robert Dunn’s class—the genesis of Judson Dance Theater—in the 1960s. If I’m feeling the presence of post-modern dance history looking over my shoulder now as I type, I can imagine the weight the Trisha Brown Dance Company carries, seven years after its founder’s passing. The TBDC 2024 season at the Joyce Theater in New York included two vintage Brown works: “Glacial Decoy” (1979), restaged by Lisa Kraus and Carolyn Lucas, and “Working Title” (1985). A new work, “In the Fall” (2023), commissioned from French choreographer Noé Soulier and created with support from Dance Reflections by Van Cleef & Arpels, offered a rare chance to glean a fresh appreciation for Brown’s legacy.

Performance

Trisha Brown Dance Company

Place

The Joyce Theater, New York, NY, March 27, 2024

Words

Karen Hildebrand

Cecily Campbell and Jennifer Payán in “Glacial Decoy” by Trisha Brown. Photograph by Maria Baranova

“Glacial Decoy” was Brown’s first work for the proscenium stage, made for five dancers with projections by Robert Rauschenberg. By design, the piece is too large for the proscenium arch: a line of dancers seesaws from side to side, with one on each end disappearing at times into the wings. Watching the seesaw is mesmerizing and allows for a wonderful moment when, to a viewer, it seems entirely possible that the dancers continue to perform offstage. Behind the dancers, four panels of Rauschenberg’s oversized black and white photos feature a shifting array of images: a dog panting with its tongue out; a window with a striped awning; the seat of a bicycle; close up of a flower; a skyline of palm fronds. The images advance like slides revolving on a projector carousel, perpetrating the same illusion as the dancers of continuing into the wings.

Filmy white nightgowns lend the dancers a gossamer effect that contrasts with the steely nature of the black and white images. With childlike innocence, they swing, drop, rebound, skip side to side, give a sideways gallop, one arm wrapping around the waist, the other arm bent behind. Cecily Campbell and Jennifer Payán captivate with an impressive endurance during their duet. They become a tutorial for Brown’s characteristic fluidity, their arms swinging to initiate momentum while the body follows, a liquid strand of pearls.

Burr Johnson and Ashley Merker in “In the Fall” by Noé Soulier. Photograph by Maria Baranova

Noé Soulier’s “In the Fall” opens with Burr Johnson and Ashley Merker forming sculptural poses that stretch and grow until you think they’ll topple over, at which point the dancers catch themselves and step into the next shape sequence. The pacing is meditative and the moves are deliberate, performed to ambient sound. Johnson looks impossibly long as he pours himself into a prone crescent shape, ala Martha Graham, balancing on one hip, with legs off the ground and arms framing his head like a pillow. When he kneels on a single flexed knee, both feet lifted off the ground, he becomes an insect, his arms sprouting like wings from his shoulder blades. A trio of dancers lie on their backs, with feet in the air like pairs of quotation marks. The women’s legs then pike open and all three fall over. In a duet, Payán and Johnson never lose physical contact between them, becoming so entangled they might be a single four-legged creature.

Bodysuits designed by Kaye Voyce, each in a brilliant shade of yellow, blue, or red, render the dancers as color blocks in a Mondrian painting. The effect is so dominating that I no longer identify the individual dancers. I see them as forming various color combinations rather than trios or quartets. Though Soulier is clearly developing his own material, “In the Fall” feels of a set with the evening’s vintage Brown work—perhaps because the TBDC dancers are so fluent in Brown’s movement aesthetic. The three works share the sense of limbs moving like flourishes of cursive handwriting.

Catherine Kirk (in air), Jennifer Payán, and Cecily Campbell in “Working Title” by Trisha Brown. Photograph by Maria Baranova

“Working Title” is all about accumulation and reduction as dancers move in and out of the ensemble. At times a dancer seems to change directions mid-phrase, her body setting out toward the right, while her torso shifts to face left. Throughout, the mood is lighthearted, enhanced by the original recorded musical montage that features percussion, accordion, cello, voice, marimba, and tabla. The piece is clever, playful, and athletic—challenging for the dancers and also perhaps the audience. Like a clock, “Working Title” continues to move regardless of a viewer’s capacity.

Each dancer has a solo turn where their individual nuance and energy is spotlighted. It brought to mind that, as critic Deborah Jowitt has pointed out, Brown never intended for her dancers to move exactly the way she herself did. More interesting was their interpretation—or as author Susan Rosenberg, puts it, “imperfect fidelity”—freedom to be themselves on stage. Similar to the way Soulier’s commissioned piece serves to extend Brown’s legacy into a future without her, so does this new generation of dancers who have the physical adroitness to perform in the manner of Brown without being replicas of her. 

A duet between Catherine Kirk and Burr Johnson is magical. Kirk performs a solo while two others lie face down on the floor, then suddenly hiccup awake. Cecily Campbell bounds across the stage like a rubberband, then stops on a dime to a blast of toots from the trombone. “Working Title” ends mid-musical phrase, the dancers lined up hopping with their arms forming a cactus shape. A program note quotes Brown as saying: “[The work] went on to be a resource for years . . . broken patterns, making a traveling phrase… It’s an example of something I went on to explore later. It became a subject for me.” Here, 39 years later, it’s as if the company is saying, Brown’s influence can and will go on.

Karen Hildebrand


Karen Hildebrand is former editorial director for Dance Magazine and served as editor in chief for Dance Teacher for a decade. An advocate for dance education, she was honored with the Dance Teacher Award in 2020. She follows in the tradition of dance writers who are also poets (Edwin Denby, Jack Anderson), with poetry published in many literary journals and in her book, Crossing Pleasure Avenue (Indolent Books). She holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Originally from Colorado, she lives in Brooklyn.

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