at the Harold Washington Library Theatre

April 24 and 25

Vladimir Nabokov would have loved Trisha Brown’s Foray Foret, not only for its punning title in two languages but for the magical way the two worlds of the dance mirror each other. Like the Russian American novelist, Brown has a talent for discovering the overlaps between distinct universes and revealing them–not didactically but through poetic correspondences. Of course language has little or nothing to do with it, and Brown’s approach is about as far from narrative as it’s possible to get.

Though Brown’s career spans almost 30 years, all three works on the program at the Harold Washington Library (sponsored by the Dance Center of Columbia College and Performing Arts Chicago) were made within the last three. Yet they looked quite different–the main similarity lay in the scores, each of which used “found” sounds.

In the 1990 Foray Foret the sounds were those of the Fanfare Piston de l’Ecole Centrale de la Ville de Lyon–a marching band recorded during the work’s premiere in France (in some cities, Foray Foret has been performed to the music of local bands playing outside the theater). In the beginning we don’t hear the music at all, just watch several dancers wash to the edge of the stage and back to the center, forming and falling out of a barely discernible line, occasionally dropping into an almost complete stillness. Then we hear the band, but faintly, as if it were playing outdoors and far away–playing marches, and later bullfight music (we hear oles).

At first the music and dancing seem to inhabit very different worlds: the band’s martial sounds are raucous, out of tune, extroverted, while the dancing is quiet, contemplative, the dancers somewhat isolated from each other and not dancing to the music at all. It’s almost as if the dancing represents one’s inner life, which goes on at its own pace and with its own logic, while the faraway march music is the outside world, the social world, just barely impinging. Yet early on Brown creates a bridge between the outside world’s forays and the forest within: in an early solo a woman’s motions subtly recall images of the hunt. In profile, she brings her splayed hand to her mouth as if blowing a horn; bent over, she rests on an opposing hand and foot, like a deer grazing.

As Foray Foret goes on, the music gets louder and wilder. These may be marches but little about them is measured–like a klezmer band, the players sound on the verge of going out of control. And remarkably the dancers sometimes fall into sync with the music: a sudden trumpet blast coincides with arms swung down in unison, oompah-pahs seem to inform a woman’s loose, rag-doll shifts in position. Yet just when we think we see a correspondence, it disappears. Later the music fades, then returns again in force; and when it returns the dancers pat their stomachs in time to it once, but pat them seconds later in a different rhythm.

The dancing itself is elegantly efficient–my companion called the movement static, but I think he mistook the measured, continuous flow of the dancers’ energy for monotony. At the same time Foray Foret is filled with surprises: near collisions and an odd kind of partnering from the wings that erases half the duet. A woman in mid-leap, facing us, is snatched offstage by encircling arms from the wings. Three dancers run at top speed from different directions and, converging in the middle, all leap at once and apparently in the same space–yet far from colliding, the two men appear to twirl the woman 90 degrees by the legs, like a turnstile.

The fact is, Brown’s movement is so stuffed with formal beauties it’s impossible to catch them all–they slip by, available on a first viewing only subliminally. In the lectures she gave as part of her three-week residency in Chicago, Brown talked about first creating yards and yards of raw movement material for her dances, then “mixing” what she had. That simple word covers a multitude of virtues: Foray Foret brings the movements of ten dancers into a remarkable variety of synchrony and difference. Moments of symmetry develop and evaporate in a blink: suddenly there are just two dancers onstage, at diagonally opposite corners, on their backs, legs straight, crossed at the ankles, and raised in the air–like deer trussed up after a kill. And then they’re gone.

Brown’s elegant, subtle choreography couldn’t seem more distant from the “bad” music of the score–bluntly obvious marches played poorly (but with great charm). Yet she makes the two worlds converge, at least momentarily. That kind of authority also comes through in the work’s concluding section, when Brown enters the dance for the first time. The fact and manner of her appearance–she’s like a witch in some ceremonial dance, unmistakably in charge–imply a strength and self-assertion that may seem at odds with the work’s suggestiveness, its apparent open-endedness. Yet like the best visual artists of our time, Brown creates an abstract vision with unerring authority and precision. There’s nothing loose or undefined about it. Or about her solo, which she performs to the accompaniment of disembodied hands, feet, and heads just barely emerging from the wings–we glimpse the horn blowing again–set off by the velvety black side curtains. Like the deep backgrounds of a medieval tapestry, these emphasize the glowing, delicate warmth of the dancers’ skin, as does Robert Rauschenberg’s backdrop of bursting pinks, greens, and golds.

In the 1989 Astral Convertible, Brown brings together the natural and industrial worlds. Rauschenberg dresses the nine dancers in shiny silver unitards; the women’s have vestigial skirts–a single layer of filmy cloth between the legs, like webbing between an amphibian’s toes. For the set Rauschenberg has created several towers of varying heights outfitted with speakers, car headlights, and sensors that, triggered by the dancers’ movement, change the light and sound.

Much of the choreography in Astral Convertible takes place on the floor, yet there’s something bubbling about it overall, as if you were watching the bottom of a glass pot filled with water almost at a boil, the silvery bubbles bobbing, lifting, rolling about, all the while creating their own little universe of reflected light and shadow. The look is very modern, unadornedly industrial, and yet the dancers’ movements often suggest lower life forms: the heliotropic way they face the light, the reptilian way they hug the floor, limbs just barely escaping the earth–and then only at odd angles. The score incorporates what might be natural or mechanical sounds: do we hear a cat meowing or a machine squeaking, surf or static?

In For M.G.: The Movie (1991), which was given its U.S. premiere here, Brown seems to return to her 60s roots: the movement is often pedestrian, minimal, and task oriented. Yet this dance is also the most overtly–if hardly flamboyantly–emotional of the three. Dedicated to Michel Guy, the late French festival organizer, it includes no film but uses the cinematic techniques of slow motion, stop motion, and reverse motion. It even has characters of a sort, defined in the anonymous, abstract manner of avant-garde French films: the runner, the stander, the roller, the dancing couple, the walker, her shadow. All eight dancers wear unitards of an earthy, unreflective reddish brown.

Designer Spencer Brown has lit the backdrop so that the bottom third looks like a light-colored piece of cardboard torn across the top, while the darker area above seems faintly splashed by sunlight from some huge unseen window; this seems to place the dancers at the dimly lit bottom of a large room whose changing patterns of light may mark the passage of a single day. Alvin Curran’s score includes an original piano composition (which he played live) and the recorded sounds of machinery, children yelling at a distance, a fly buzzing, a noise like Lincoln Logs falling into a metal container, and other more or less identifiable everyday noises. As if this were the score of an arty French movie, the intermittent piano seems vaguely sentimental.

But ironically, in For M.G.: The Movie Brown opts out of glitz: no shiny costumes, little or no dancey movement. As the piece opens we see two people standing together with their backs to us and a third who runs in a figure eight, slowing and enlarging her steps as she runs toward us at the crossover point, circling the couple at one end. A slight stagger near one corner turns into another, semicircular pattern around that corner that gets bigger and bigger. Then she shifts to the other downstage corner, which she defines by running backward in a triangular pattern, speeding up when she enters the cone of light directed from the corner as if by a projector.

It’s not difficult to perceive the movement in this work. The patterns are often obvious–performed repeatedly, in slow motion, and by only one or two people. But this dance is conceptually difficult, teasing us with its references to film, playing around with different kinds of time: stage time, cinematic time, real time. Some of the performers–including Brown herself in one section–manage to move so slowly that we never catch them at it, yet they make their way from here to there. The slow motion that marks much of For M.G. looks elegiac, and the one figure that never moves is oddly poignant, particularly when Brown pauses to stare at him in confrontation or challenge. Even the lighting suggests the cinema, playing games with transparency and opacity: when the “projector” light goes off later in the dance, we see that the opaque “cardboard” of the backdrop is a nearly transparent scrim that reveals the pipes and concrete blocks at the rear of the stage. Pools of harsh light fall on small sections of the audience–as if we were also screens for projection. And when the projector’s switched off, do we also become transparent? And what’s behind us?

All of Brown’s dancers–Liz Carpenter, Nicole Juralewicz, Kevin Kortan, Gregory Lara, Carolyn Lucas, Diane Madden, Trish Oesterling, Lisa Schmidt, Wil Swanson, and David Thomson–were marvelous throughout, somehow impersonal yet completely recognizable. Brown herself is amazing in both her dancing and choreography: she casts her net wide, then draws in with a light but sure hand. She’s brainy, no doubt about it, and her works are filled with cerebral pleasures; but like Nabokov’s these are gently delivered and never far from their human sources.