The crowd is the first thing I notice in the Trisha Brown Dance Company’s 2016 performance of “Figure Eights” as part of a performance at Seattle Art Museum. The audience clusters behind the row of six dancers, who are all dressed in casual white shirts and loose, white pants. The audience claps and takes pictures, sits stage-side, heads in their hands, on their phones.
Watching the audience watch this performance is a reminder that the performance was for the benefit of people who were there, watching the TBDC dancers count out a complex pattern of holds and subtle arm lifts and curves set to the insistent clicks of a metronome. The work was built for the reception of an audience in real time, as was most live art—a fact that many artists and companies seeking to survive the Covid-19 pandemic hope audiences will temporarily forget.
The dance world’s transition to its online-only alias feels uniquely disorienting. Once anchored by natural revolutions, “winter seasons,” spaces that matched the energy of the companies and people who performed there, its absence feels hollow. Away from that space, the Covid-19 fragmentation feels like a systemic glitch, unmoored from any anchor or intersection.
I’ve found it difficult to keep track of the disparate online dance performances exploded across my feed, maybe because I have a harder time understanding what I should be receiving there. Though I wish this weren’t true, I feel the same way about Zoom happy hours, Instagram Live DJ sets, virtual karaoke. When we can’t have the thing we want I assumed I would want the next best thing. But the simulacra only emphasizes the distance between what we could have and where we are now.
Two recent videos posted on the Trisha Brown Dance Company’s Instagram page are some of the few successful attempts I’ve seen to take today’s constraints and use them as an inspiration to the interpretation of existing work. Instead of pretending that a performance viewed through a screen is exactly the same as one viewed in a theater or shared space, TBDC approaches technology as a medium worthy of interrogation, not just a temporary necessity.
In the work of postmodern dance pioneer Trisha Brown, dance appears where it ordinarily should not. Her dancers meander across museum walls, walk through grids, and share weight between each other in her “Leaning Duets” (1970). A man slowly rights himself and steps down the sheer drop of an edifice in “Man Walking Down the Side of a Building” (1970).
For a company with a history of exploring changes of gravity and sudden horizontality, it makes sense that its transition to an online space would be a space for experimentation of shifted orientations, as well as an exploration of form. When the ground caves out from under you, you can call it a fall, or you can make it a dance.
May 5th’s post on TBDC’s Instagram TV (also available on Vimeo) was a re-rendering of her 1974 piece “Figure 8,” a piece that Brown described in a notebook as a “time crossing,” where dancers accumulate counts (1, 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4-5, etc.) in the rising of their arms to touch the tip of their heads on one side of their body while decreasing (1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7, 1-2-3-4-5-6) on the other.
Instead of standing in a line with their eyes closed, in TBDC’s Instagram video, they each face the front of their cameras from their respective screens. The structure creates a grid, with three dancers in each column and each row. Combined with the steady, unforgiving score, the composition heightens the mathematical completeness of the piece, its seeming simplicity belied by the collapse of time, distance, and physical space.
There’s also a cow in the video. It pokes its head in the background of a dancer in the bottom row, middle column, who has filmed his section against the background of a vast, green field. Videotaped in wherever the dancers are sheltering in place, this digital reimagining of “Figure 8” involves the randomness and chance of its dancers’ situations as part of the texture of the piece. This is fitting for a Trisha Brown dance, where steps created through improvisation became codified and memorized steps without losing any of their caprice.
“Room/Roof Piece” recorded April 3rd is an even more obviously translated version of a piece from her repertory. Brown’s original “Roof Piece” (1971), dancers performed a call and response chain reaction across rooftops in SoHo. The dancers all wore red, which was both to see each other attempt to follow along the gestural telephone, and for the onlookers to notice when a dancer’s view was blocked or when they entered a mutation into the sequence code.
Online, the dancers recorded their reimagining over Zoom from their respective homes. At the start of the piece, the dancers turn on their cameras one by one. They wave to each other, calling to mind a corporate video chat, which is previously the only context I can imagine video chatting with eight other people at a time.
The dancers, here too in red, signal to each other across a much wider gap than a city block. The Zoom format creates its own interesting snags in the pattern. Sound leaks fall through the grid, a bird song looping through the group audio. When one dancer makes noise, their video pops into center stage. A slight lag in signal causes some frames to freeze, then reboot.
More than anything, I noticed, these dancer’s movements—all front-facing, all gestural, all done with an emphasis on steps that remained, circumscribed, within the space of the computer screen—reminded me of the chirpily looping dances I’d seen on TikTok. Left to our own handheld devices, every video a dancer creates is now a TikTok dance, not meant to transcend the boundaries of an iPhone screen.
Maybe TikTok is the closest we can come to an organic dance style created in isolation, fit perfectly for our shut-in scale where we are hungry for a form of dance that allows us to communicate with each other by repeating each other, an elaborate in-joke with no barrier to entry. When we can have actual theaters and performance spaces again we can have compositions, closeness, partnering and physical embraces. No company planned for a world where bodies sharing space would become a liability, and no art form that draws its center from the communal act of gathering had a backup version of itself saved to the Cloud. But for now, I’ll keep watching.