Trisha Brown Dance Company

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, October 4-6

Trisha Brown’s new work, Geometry of Quiet, demonstrates the basis for her reputation as a giant of contemporary choreography: the work is wholly original, engages the imagination without controlling it, disdains show and embraces the genuine, and is truly beautiful. Unfortunately it’s bracketed by two earlier pieces that demonstrate the basis for Brown’s reputation as godmother of difficult, off-putting postmodern dance, someone to whom beauty is beside the point.

These works make clear how postmodern dance reflects the beliefs and conventions of modern literature. (Apparently the dance world is one step behind the literary: it took a second world war to convey to dancers what writers had grasped decades earlier.) European literature of the early 20th century seeks to convey all faces of the loss of meaning–absence, atomization, alienation–with linguistic tools ranging from harsh clarity to dense obscurantism. This catholic approach means there are moments of great beauty and simplicity in T.S. Eliot but also long stretches of pompous, in-jokey intellectual gamesmanship. Both are intended to evoke the aridity of modern life, and both succeed; but if it’s all the same to you, I’ll take my existential pointlessness with a heaping side order of beauty. What holds for poetry goes double for dance.

Geometry of Quiet and Twelve Ton Rose (1996), the evening’s opener, share an argument: that genuine human connection is difficult and painful. But Geometry of Quiet is more persuasive because it actually makes those connections. The difficulties of Twelve Ton Rose begin with the music, 12-tone compositions by Anton Webern. “Why dance to this music?” I scribbled, followed shortly by “joyless” and “dessicated.” Though Brown’s combinations have a certain kaleidoscopic appeal–resembling a hyperactive game of checkers as dancers outfitted in red or black work their way across the squares marked faintly on the floor–none of the piece’s four movements engages or satisfies. Duets and ensemble sections are distinguished largely by the brevity of the contact: lifts are all done from weird angles (a fireman’s carry with the carried dancer’s knees over the other’s shoulder) as if to compel their being cut short. The dance looks like a portrait of people allergic to touch or unable to imagine contact that doesn’t hurt, an impression reinforced by the dancers’ blank faces. The lack of affect is clearly deliberate but nonetheless tiresome: What is everybody so solemn about? This is music and dancing, for Christ’s sake; if it’s so unnourishing, let’s skip it and go back to our drab, wretched little lives.

“You know what I like about dance?” my neighbor said to her companion. “Relationships. You know what I missed in this piece? Relationships.” Amen, sister.

But then there’s Geometry of Quiet, whose title I misremembered as “Geometry of Desire”–with good reason. To Salvatore Sciarrino’s sketchy flute music, punctuated by whooshes and silence, three men and three women couple in various combinations while huge sheets of parachute silk occasionally unfurl in midair from the wings. Sometimes the couples appear in silhouette behind the silk, sometimes in shadow before it. Particularly at the beginning the movement is in canon: one of the women in the first couple lowers her torso while raising her leg behind her, and a split second before she reverses this move the other begins it. Act and shadow. This is where the idea of Eliot introduces itself: “Between the conception / And the creation / Between the emotion / And the response / Falls the Shadow.”

Geometry of Quiet frequently requires two dancers to move as one when it looks impossible to move at all. That first couple “walks” offstage while face-to-face on each other’s laps, and another locomotes while one dancer is balanced on the other’s back with no visible means of support, like a wing-walking barnstormer. Many of the moves, in fact, seem to be some variation on “flying united”: the dancers are forever between each other’s legs, around each other’s waists, over each other’s shoulders. They touch with great tenderness and the touches linger; when they’re interrupted it’s painful. The point that connection is difficult is made in language we can tolerate hearing.

The evening concludes with Rapture to Leon James (2000), Brown’s first work in the jazz idiom. Once again she’s chosen music difficult to dance to, in this case Dave Douglas’s ultramodern jazz, which glories in burying rhythm and melody in cacophony. The company does things that are jazzlike, jazzoid, but without the momentum that makes jazz exhilarating–and gored skirts and jazz shoes can’t atone for the loss. Brown’s adaptations of traditions like the juba line, the tap ritual of competitive dancing, may be witty but they aren’t fun, possibly because the dancers are again blank faced. Yet when one of them smiles (he must not have gotten the memo), you can’t help wondering what he could possibly be smiling about. Watching the piece is like looking at an X ray instead of a person: all that’s missing is flesh and blood.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chris Callis.