Human Gestures

The Trisha Brown Dance Company brings its renowned celebrations of movement to Tucson

When choreographer Trisha Brown created the dance "Foray Forêt" in 1990, she made an unusual musical choice: Local marching bands would play whatever music they wanted whenever her dancers performed it.

"That's the best bad idea you ever had," collaborator Robert Rauschenberg told her.

At least that's the way Brown dancer Elena Demyanenko tells the story. Demyanenko has danced the piece around the world, wearing costumes designed by the late Rauschenberg—a painter who, like Brown, created new art forms in the post-modern ferment of the 1960s.

Speaking by phone last week after a rehearsal in New York, Demyanenko said it's always entertaining to see what music the locals will come up with to accompany the dance.

"The band chooses its own repertory," Demyanenko said in Russian-accented English. "Sometimes, it's hilarious. Sometimes, the music goes against the flow of the movement onstage. If you recognize the song, you want to laugh, but you have to be straight onstage."

The UA Pep Band, an elite subgroup of the Pride of Arizona marching band, will play for "Foray Forêt" this Saturday night, Feb. 18, when the Trisha Brown Dance Company alights in Tucson for its first-ever performance at Centennial Hall.

The Pep Band often gets invitations to play in venues other than sports stadiums, according to Darsen Campbell of UApresents, but this is the first time the pep musicians will accompany modern dance. Some 40 students will march around the theater, playing a selection of either classic marching-band tunes or jazz.

The randomness of the music is the point.

"Every time, it's a new band," Demyanenko noted. "That brings a certain surprise."

Brown's entire career has been about the unexpected. Now 75, she's known for sending her dancers scampering up walls or splashing across water. She came to prominence in the early-1960s as a dance rebel performing at the Judson Memorial Church in New York's Washington Square. The Greenwich Village church combined the arts with its religious mission, exhibiting work by the likes of Rauschenberg and Claes Oldenburg, and providing space for dance.

Brown and the others who made up the now-legendary Judson Dance Theater weren't interested in the abstract beauty of classical modernism. Instead, they experimented with creating dance out of the ordinary gestures of life—pedestrian movement, as they called it—and improvisation.

Eventually, Brown broke out of the church boundaries and sent her dancers to perform on rooftops in SoHo. By 1970, when she famously choreographed "Man Walking Down the Side of a Building"—with the dancer in a harness—she had organized her own company. In the years since, she's toured her company around the world and won nearly every award the dance world has to give. She has continued to innovate, delving futuristically into technology and reinventing opera.

Brown's "body is extremely alive," Demyanenko said, "and the company is fully alive, performing Trisha's new work coming out."

The company will dance three pieces at Centennial Hall, including one that just debuted last summer.

"Trisha pays incredible attention to detail, to alignment," said Demyanenko, who was trained in ballet and danced with Brown disciple Stephen Petronio for seven years before joining Brown's company in 2009. Demyanenko said Brown still values "movement as itself, movement stripped of emotion. There's no narrative, emotion or drama. But her vocabulary is full of human gestures. People can connect with it if they're looking for narrative."

In "Foray Forêt," Demyanenko said, "I'm doing a phrase throughout the piece, like a clock. It's a soft phrase, like sleepwalking."

The work, whose rhyming title, a combination of English and French, means "foray forest," is for all nine dancers in the company. The choreographer made it after a period of "extremely physical dances of full-blown motion. The dancers were so tired, they asked for a piece that was softer," Demyanenko said with a laugh.

"For M.G.: The Movie," created the next year, in 1991, is "very different." Brown dedicated it to Michel Guy, a former minister of culture in France who had died the year before. The director of a festival that showcased avant-garde artists, he "was extremely supportive of Trisha's work," Demyanenko said. "He brought her to France in the early '70s."

The dance is powered by Brown's interest in film. She was intrigued by the way edits can make movie actors seem to vanish and reappear, and "she wanted the dancers to have mysterious appearances and disappearances, as in movies."

A dance for eight set to music by Alvin Curran, "The Movie" even has characters. The Girl runs in different rhythms, Demyanenko said. Everyman stands motionless, while the others dance around him; the Voyeur wanders like a sleepwalker.

"You can discover a hint of narrative," Demyanenko said. "It pops out."

The work ends with the Bad Girl solo, originally danced by Brown herself.

"It's one of the most beautiful solos, with abstract gestures. It has a beautiful architectural vocabulary."

"Les Yeux et l'âme" (The Eyes and the Soul) premiered last summer in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France. It's a dance adaptation of Pigmalion, a one-act French opera by Jean-Philippe Rameau. The 1748 work retells Ovid's story of a sculptor who falls in love with the stone woman he's carved.

At its debut in France, the dancers performed with an orchestra and singers, conducted by William Christie. A recording of the music will play for the Centennial Hall rendition.

A duet between dancers Tamara Riewe and Nicholas Strafaccia proves once again how unexpected Brown can be. This time, she retreats from post-modernism and offers up a trace of emotion and a hint of story.

"It's the closest thing to narrative," Demyanenko said. "It's a beautiful duet, a beautiful piece."

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