When the Spirit Moves You

Claudia La Rocco on Trisha Brown Dance Company at New York Live Arts

Trisha Brown, Opal Loop/Cloud Installation #72503, 1980. Performance view, New York Live Arts, New York, April 2014. Photo: Ian Douglas.

A FEW YEARS AGO, I wrote a review of New York City Ballet in which I talked about Balanchine’s great works as “museum pieces.” To me this wasn’t denigrating, merely stating fact—and so I was rather taken aback when, a couple of days later, I found myself again at City Ballet getting my tickets, and an older critic came rushing up behind me, screeching, “Don’t let her in! She hates Balanchine!”

I thought about this Tuesday night at New York Live Arts, during a performance by the Trisha Brown Dance Company that included reconstructions of her Son of Gone Fishin’, 1981, and Solo Olos, 1976. It felt like an uptown crowd (there was an intermission!), and also like an art wake, people coming to pay their respects.

I was with a dear friend, and at one point she whispered about being somewhat alienated from the work, that it wasn’t contemporary, and that a certain level of abandon had fled—that “the immaterial circumstances of the dance had left the material manifestation of the form.” She was not denigrating, merely stating fact—and so I was rather taken aback to find myself rushing to the work’s defense. Emotionally screeching, if not actually. That’s how it goes with love, I guess.

Because of course she’s right. At a certain point the spirit must depart, and we are left staring at the letter. I felt like that Tuesday, the edges hardening, and writing this now I feel grateful that Brown’s company, like Merce Cunningham’s, has had the good sense not to plod on in perpetuity and poverty (actual; City Ballet, unlike almost all modern dance troupes, has the money to be a museum—that’s important to keep in mind).

But at the time I was really only thinking, “All of the companies I love go away.”

And I do so love the liquid intelligence of Brown’s choreographic structures. The same collection of words always pools in my mind when watching: breakneck, fluid, mercurial, slippery… the dancers like the finest of parts in a machine so marvelously, delicately intricate.

Of course, of course, with Brown no longer at the helm the dancers are being careful with this material. As the then-Cunningham dancer Rashaun Mitchell said to me in 2011, “Merce’s presence fostered freedom in the dancers and I think that without him there is more of a tendency to make things exact and to define things.”

I thought of that line, also, Tuesday night, while watching Jamie Scott perform—Scott, like Mitchell, was in the final iteration of the Cunningham troupe, and now here she is again, a new final iteration. My eyes kept seeking her out on the stage; she seemed all lit up, looser and more alive than some of the other dancers—or maybe that was just what I wanted to see. Some sort of proof, of what? The final line of her short program bio reads like a gift to her audience: “She is excited for the opportunity to begin again.”

And then, of course, how deeply weird to be talking about all of this within New York Live Arts, which until a few years ago was Dance Theater Workshop. Just so does the Paul Taylor American Dance Company become Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance, as was recently announced. Fair enough. But to quote the New York Times’s Alastair Macaulay, “I don’t care for the apostrophe: Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance suggests that he is annexing the rest of American modern dance.”

Isn’t this just how the downtown world feels about Bill T. Jones, who, with artistic director Carla Peterson decamping, is soon to be solely at the helm of New York Live Arts? Peterson taking over the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography at Florida State University is great news for the field—they couldn’t have chosen a better successor for Jennifer Calienes—but now whither NYLA?

Or, better, whither dance at NYLA? A couple of weeks ago, Luciana Achugar confronted Jones in the middle of her piece after he became maniacally, vocally involved, overriding many of the performer plants in the chaotically ritualistic Otro Teatro. She yelled him down: “It’s your theater but it’s not your fucking piece!”

It was thrilling, intensely disquieting. Would she have yelled at anyone else this way? The symbolic and the actual merged. As Mathew Pokoik of Mount Tremper Arts wrote on Twitter, “the church’s (male) repression of pagan (female) ritual.”

What if Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance decides to put on one of Trisha Brown’s dances in a few years? Bring on the screeching. I won’t be able to stand it.

Trisha Brown Dance Company’s run at New York Live Arts continues through Sunday, April 13.