Thursday, April 13, 2017

contemporary realities - Trisha Brown's "Set & Reset" - postmodern challenge & promise

(re-written after the recent passing of Trisha Brown)

recently I once again reviewed Trisha Brown's classic Set & Reset Version 1 on VHS-video in its epoch-making one-take recording from 1985 by James Byrne, danced by the original cast who significantly interpreted the choreography: Trisha Brown, Diane Madden, Irene Hultman, Eva Karczag, Stephen Petronio, Vicky Schick, Randy Warshaw

it was a great joy to experience how after 20 years of seeing this video again & again, this time I could finally follow all the various developments of the simple basic composition:
the dancers perform variations on 3 basic phrases,
which are continually modulated in ever new and exciting variations and interactions.

in musical terms, the dance resembles the Baroque form of the Fuga =
a theme is interpreted polyphonically, always with the same start, but different continuations. 

that's all, really ...
but in this realization alone there are up to 7 individual dancers, 7 such voices, interacting spatially with each other, and the results are wonderful, brilliant, complex, exploring swinging free-flow momentum and daring excitement.  

(see here the re-work of the Budapest School of Dance facilitated by Eva Karczag and Vicky Shick from 2009 with 8 dancers, among them prize-winning choreographer Adrienn Hód and dancer Emese Cuhorka)

1994 ...

I remember very well how as a young dance student at the Rotterdamse Dansacademie (now codarts) I was very drawn to this piece, entirely fascinated - but not yet able to understand the movements well enough so that I could also follow them more specifically in their complex polykinetic development.

the complexity and variations went beyond the more mono-linear dance-vocabularies and practices that I had been trained to understand, even while I had started to independently study the Kinetic Awareness® work of Elaine Summers. when seeing these works of Trisha Brown I was confronted with movement-languages that originated from a different, deeper and wider understanding of the human bodymind and its possible movements.

this difficulty went so far that when I first saw a live-performance of Trisha Brown Company in Amsterdam 1992, I nearly fell asleep like babies do, because my brain needed off-time to rewire from the newly received kinesthetic information ... but when I got up from my seat, I could physically feel that my body had gotten a new understanding of movement, much like after a good dance-class.

ever since then I have kept re-visiting and reviewing this dance-recording, like a very good book, and it has become one of the "Bibles" of my life, a true classic: offering a balance of simplicity and complexity, and an example that invites to be followed -
in fact, I've always had to be very careful not to merely imitate movements from the dance language of this piece and related work, although sometimes some of the moves just "pop-up" right in the middle of an improvisation ... (essentially creating a new tradition)
I believe it is no accident that for some time Trisha Brown collaborated and studied Kinetic Awareness® with Elaine Summers: both had been deeply involved with the collective later known as Judson Dance Theater, both created dance-works in public space. Brown had also danced in Summers' early version of Energy Changes, called From the Still Point performed as a duet with Summers at Loeb Student Center, NYU 1971

there had been ongoing exchanges between both professionals, such as when Pearl Bowser, associate artist at Summers' Experimental Intermedia Foundation, filmed the performance of Brown's Planes at the Whitney Museum to be made into an intermedia-installation (see video), etc.

Linearity, con-formity ...
watching Trisha Brown instruct two dancers of her then-company in Michael Blackwood's documentary Making Dances from 1980, I do notice how Brown's ability to articulate her body is much more complex in its simultaneous multi-directionality than that of both dancers, who are trying to absorb the free-flow calligraphy, spontaneously thrown out by her into time and space.

it must also be mentioned that not much longer after this documentary Trisha Brown eventually did chose to return to the traditional confines of more traditional 'Western' proscenium theaters, and the expectations of a more traditional European/-American socio-economic elite, coupled with capitalist-elitist financial rewards, dearly needed to maintain her company on a professional level, pay a living wage to dancers, administrators, technicians etc. 

what for many is new, amazing, revolutionary - especially for those of us who remain in an area where we are repeating incremental variations of ever less deeply understood traditional dance languages (which in return as often as not are made into 'new' disposable toss-fodder for the dance-industrial-complex) - is how Trisha Browns' work manages to bring a wider range of complexity of possible human movement together with such an old-fashioned traditional mono-linearity, but still with enough of the liveliness that created this movement in the first place, evoking a specific kind of human character/state that these movements suggest. again, in that sense a classical artist: offering a balance of simplicity and complexity - in this case also tradition and innovation- and an example that invites to be followed ... 

Trisha Brown actually did what back then she said in Blackwood's documentary she so despised: she did turn around and did make a step back, took the most willing people of an audience by the hand, and crossed the line with them, again, ... offered something a bit more understandable, which still had some force of the exciting promise of multiplicity and complexity of organic, spiritual life in it.

as a result, today even the Paris Opera Ballet can find a way to come closer to an interpretation of Brown's choreography. see video here

others ...

peers, like Elaine Summers, who chose to continue the exploration of entirely new settings and new situations altogether, without looking back, or creating translations to a more traditional mindset, paid dearly in every respect -economically and personally- for forging ahead and not taking the time to revert & effectively take others by the hand.

some of them are now admitted into the halls of classicism:

  • Merce Cunningham managed to continue his career long enough and kept using European-American classical Ballet vocabulary, to form a possible bridge, eventually enough of the rest of the world would catch up with him in time for economic support.
  • after a long while, Anna Halprin is now gradually enjoying more and more recognition and respect; next to her collaborations with her architect-husband Lawrence Halprin, the documentations of her work are by now more acceptable for a larger mainstream, and her deep exploration of healing can be more accepted.
  • Pina Bausch could find an entry via the languages and codes of German theater/drama and eventually became another icon, complete with a saccharine movie by Wim Wenders that emphasizes conventionally acceptable beauty, with what has become more widely acceptable of her once revolutionary work.

(on the change from revolting new to beautifully classic, suggestion to read the beginning of Gertrude Stein's Composition as Explanation, written 1926)

ecological, economical, cultural niches
as a con-sequence, it is useful to understand the necessity of both directions:
those of us who forge ahead, and those of us who actually form less radical hybrids with more traditionally accepted forms of expression. either one serves a purpose in the development of research and translation.

in a post-modern continuum, where there is no longer a single line directing one way forward or backward, any such developments become recognizable as ongoing processes of changing codes/vocabularies/practices/languages.

it is through languages such as those created by Trisha Brown, that we can become more ready to understand and appreciate her contemporaries (e.g. Summers, Halprin, but also Mary Overlie, Mary O'Donnell-Fulkerson, Pauline de Groot, Katherine Dunham, Germaine Acogny, Tatsumi Hijikata ... - insert here the name of any pioneer, both "Western" and less- or entirely non-"Western" ... 

all of these pioneers, and all of us who are affected by them, create an important ecotope for understanding human movement & eventually the human condition. whether & how much we understand and support each other in these differences, remains a crucial question in these times, where the filters of what will "sell" all too often only allow for the most stereotypical and least understanding forms of dance to be disseminated with a wider audience, and where because of socio-economic inequality such a wider audience does not easily get a choice of acquiring more adequate means for appreciating such physically moving contemporary realities.