'Stellar' Dancing on the Mall

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE night sky was full of big, pointy silver stars as "Astral Converted (50 a multimedia dance collaboration, flowed out in an open-air performance on the Mall in front of the National Gallery of Art. Members of the Trisha Brown Dance Company slithered, leaped, hovered, and quivered in moonbeam-colored costumes in this collaboration between choreographer Brown, composer John Cage, and artist Robert Rauschenberg.

The world premiere of the work was commissioned by The Circle of the National Gallery; the audience sat or sprawled on the stone steps of the Gallery's West Building, facing the Mall and the lights of the Air and Space Museum across the way.

This was the first time that the three artists had worked together, although Mr. Rauschenberg had collaborated separately with Ms. Brown and Mr. Cage before. The premiere was to honor the exhibition "Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange" that runs through Sept. 2 at the National Gallery. [A review of the show ran May 20.]

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For art lovers or Washington lovers, it was a heady night: first a long lavender twilight falling on the dark trees lining the Mall, then the navy blue night with its scents and sounds. A persistent, small breeze brought the scent of azaleas mixed with the salt tang of the Tidal Basin.

Rauschenberg's "set" of eight free-standing aluminum towers, two to eight feet tall, housed the equipment for the sound and light show. The dancers' movements were picked up by sensors in the towers that converted them into sounds.

Stare into the darkness and listen as you would, you could never determine what movement caused what sound, whether peep or rumble. Rauschenberg also designed the costumes, made of a light-reflecting fabric. Joining in the sound and light were the headlights and tail lights from passing cars, the thunder of jets from National Airport, the wail of a fire siren, and the honking of horns.

Even the people on the Mall paths - bicycling, walking, pushing strollers - served as a backdrop to the airy stage.

The Trisha Brown dancers in their silvery leotards moved sinuously to the atonal music. Sometimes they seemed to pour toward one another, so liquid was their dancing. And sometimes, moving with long-handled street sweepers' brooms, they seemed to be sweeping up stars from "Astral."

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