When Trisha Brown’s “Foray Forêt” begins, dancers look like shadows against a purple backdrop until the stage fades in to light. We see intricate, gentle, movements: slight inclines of the head, swinging arms, brief transfers of weight between the group. They are done with great precision, sometimes independently and sometimes remarkably synchronized. “Foray Forêt” was choreographed in 1990, and Brown said she was trying to tap into her subconscious to create simplified, intimate gestures. It was one collaboration of many with Brown’s good friend and creative partner Robert Rauschenberg (he did the visual design and the costumes) and was recently brought back to the stage, along with their “Astral Converted,” for the Trisha Brown Dance Company’s 50th anniversary season at the Joyce Theater.
“Foray Forêt” is done completely in silence; or so we think. From the beginning of the piece, we actually hear the faint sound of a marching band. At first, I thought it might be someone’s phone going off, but then the sound moved. I thought I heard it coming from behind me, but later started realizing it was coming from my right side, or was it in the back corner? The story goes that one day, Brown was standing on a balcony in Barcelona and a marching band passed through the streets below. Intrigued by this experience of witnessing transient sound, when choreographing “Foray Forêt,” Brown decided to throw in a marching band, and, like her real-life experience, this one roams too, eventually crossing the stage. It was true that I heard the music coming from behind me, and to the right, and from the back corner: The live marching band (under the musical direction of Sunny Jain) had been circling the Joyce Theater to create the effect of moving sound. A fascinating idea.
Like much of Brown’s work, “Foray Forêt” displays a mastery of space and clever developments of choreographic patterns. The dancers have an overwhelming awareness of their own bodies and each others’. There is no musical meter or evident sound cues to move to, yet when in unison, they move pretty much exactly together. Also characteristic of Brown’s work, there are a number of wonderful lifts and moments of partnering, such as a repeating sequence where one woman runs straight downstage and is thrust by anonymous hands that emerge from the wings to lift her into the air and turn her to face directly stage left, like being tossed by the wind. In another instance of perfect timing, three dancers run from different directions into the center at full speed, separating seamlessly as one leaps out of the way just in time to avoid collision.
In solos, such as with the gorgeous Cecily Campbell (who dances so effortlessly it looks like she could float away at any moment), we appreciate the care that each little movement takes. Realizing that every step in the piece requires such detail, we start to see the whole thing like a complex ecosystem. It sometimes makes us feel huge, like we’re focusing in on a tiny organism through a high-tech microscope. On the other hand, we can also feel small, as we recognize the mystery of the moving sound, but can’t quite discover where it is coming from. As we try to detect where it is, we are only sure that it is not where we are, which guarantees nothing except to imply that there must be an elsewhere to consider.
“Astral Converted” was inspired by audience perspective, specifically exploring two possible views: aerial and head on. It begins with two rows of dancers on the floor surrounded by vertical light fixtures that soon are revealed to be mobile. Rauschenberg’s costumes, which were reconstructed by Jeffrey Wirsing, are silver unitards with, for the women, what looks like a fin—a sheer piece of fabric sewn between the legs. “Astral Converted” premiered on an outdoor stage on Washington D.C.’s mall, a space which welcomed a wide range of viewing perspectives. The dance makes use of different levels, following floor work with work at knee-level, then standing, then leaping, or all of this at once. The moving lighting also plays with the audience focus, emphasizing certain areas and purposefully neglecting others. The piece is funny in a lot of ways, starting with the curled-up dancers who crawl on the floor at the beginning, and who at one point hold still with their behinds in the air. At another instance, dancers start to enter with push brooms, manipulating the floor dancers and adding another component of humor to the piece.
“Astral Converted” is accompanied by a John Cage score, which features eight different instruments that play long, sustained tones. The music requires tremendous patience. The whole piece does, really: There is not much of a clear trajectory, and despite the funny parts, it is not emotional. In fact, the whole evening—which lasted about two hours—demands a focus from the audience, perhaps almost as intense as that of the dancers. As an audience, we sit quietly, with little-to-no music the entire program, no clear story to follow, and not much context to draw from. It is a very distinctive experience, an important one, which forces us to be aware of our own instincts and responses in addition to the ingenious choreography happening in front of us, and the sound vibrating all around us.