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, with the original cast: Trisha Brown, Diane Madden, Irene Hultman, Eva Karczag, Stephen Petronio, Vicky Schick, Randy Warshaw

it was a great joy how this time I could finally follow all the various developments of the rather 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, also 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)

I remember very well how as a young dance studentat the Rotterdamse Dansacademie (now codarts) in 1994, 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. I was confronted with entirely new 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 work of Trisha Brown 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 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 created dance-works in public space that used the entire space as a dramatical setting, possibly inspiring Brown's use of film-projectors in her solo Homemade, 1966 - she 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, 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.

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 at one point did chose to return back to the traditional confines -with the capitalist-elitist financial rewards- of more traditional 'Western' proscenium theaters, and the expectations of a more traditional European/-American socio-economic elite.

what for many is new, amazing, revolutionary - especially for those of us who remain more stuck in repeating incremental variations of ever less deeply understood traditional dance languages (which in return often as not are made into 'new' disposable toss-fodder for the dance-industrial-complex) - is how Browns' work manages to bring a wider range of complexity of possible human movement together with such old-fashioned linearity, but still re-creating much of the liveliness that created this movement in the first place, evoking a specific kind of human character/state that these movements suggest.

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, 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 of her peers, like Elaine Summers, who chose to continue the exploration of entirely new settings and new situations altogether, without looking back, paid dearly in every respect -economically and personally- for forging ahead and not taking the time to revert & effectively take others by the hand. Merce Cunningham simply managed to continue long enough and had a dance-language suitable enough to have the rest of the world catch up with him in time for economic support. after a long while, Anna Halprin is now enjoying some similar respect. Pina Bausch could find an entry via the languages and codes of German theater/drama and eventually became almost a household name, 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)


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" ... )


together, 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 for a wider audience, and where because of inequality a wider audience most often does not get a choice of acquiring more adequate means for appreciating such physically moving contemporary realities.