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First off, a caveat: I’m no expert on Trisha Brown. The New York-based choreographer might be a modern dance icon who’s repeatedly pushed conventions in her 50 years on the scene, but as of yesterday, I knew very little about her.
But her company is performing at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts tomorrow night, and I had a short interview with Neal Beasley, one of her dancers, scheduled for 10 a.m. So I did a cursory tour of her history and repertory in media archives and on YouTube. To my surprise, I wound up being pretty enamored with what I found.
Brown is the kind of choreographer I describe as “smart”: not intellectual or heady, per se, but one who’s able to discover the complexities within a simple concept and then present them in a clear, coherent way. Unlike a lot of choreographers, she doesn’t seem to be working with ideas that could as easily be expressed in words; her subjects are space, time, gravity, and structure, abstractions that are best described physically and nonverbally. Brown’s a visual artist, too—another wordless art form—so that probably informs her aesthetic.
The other thing I loved was her movement itself: It was utterly unconventional and uncliched, and struck me as genuine movement exploration, rather than a superficial effort to look pretty.
But man, why isn’t she as well known as some other choreographers (mostly male, I’ll add), like Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor?
“Good question. I wish I had a definite answer,” said Beasley, when I put it to him. “She’s more of a conceptual choreographer; she’s largely abstract, working with very specific movement languages, never narrative and never really concerned with things like expression and human emotion,” he mused. “Maybe her work doesn’t concern itself with selling itself to the public, and I think an American public comes to want those things.”
Beasley said Brown is as smart and engaged as her work implies. “When she talks about what she’s working on, it’s quite simple, but she has a certain rigor and approach in really mining an idea to its core,” he explained. “She has a longstanding relationship with, ‘What is the stage?’ And I think that comes from her 20-year career as an improviser before she made anything for the stage.”
On Saturday night, the company will perform three older pieces—“Foray Forêt” (1990), “Watermotor” (1978), and “Opal Loop/Cloud Installation #72503” (1980)—as well as one new piece, “Les Yeux et l’âme.” The latter is adapted from an opera, Pygmalion, that Brown created last year. According to Beasley, it’s the only piece in the evening’s show that is performed to music, and has a more flowing, light style than the others.
The Trisha Brown Dance Company performs at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts on Saturday at 8 pm; a pre-performance discussion by dance professor Kate Mattingly is at 7 p.m. Tickets to the show are $22, $36, and $44.
Photo by Julietta Cervantes