Dance's post-modernist push
Boston — They call this the cutting edge, but it's more like a persistent push. Unlike many post-modern art forms, the dances of choreographer Trisha Brown are not a shocking experience to behold. Rather they exhibit a persistent search for new shapes and new relationships -- among the dancers themselves, and between the dancers and the music and the dancers and the setting.
The search was plainly evident at Trisha Brown's recent appearance here, in which she and her company presented three recent works, including ''Set and Reset,'' a new multimedia collaboration with original music by Laurie Anderson and an original visual presentation by Robert Rauschenberg.
Brown has long been an acknowledged pacesetter in post-modern dance and is considered one of the genre's founders. Lately, she has embarked in yet more innovative and adventurous undertakings, and two of the pieces presented here -- ''Set and Reset'' and ''Son of Gone Fishin' '' -- appeared at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's ''Next Wave Festival'' last fall, which is considered to be the breeding ground for much of the newest and latest in post-modernist art.
As such, Brown's work is part of one of the art world's most fascinating and least understood trends, certain to have a large influence on dance, music, painting, and drama worldwide. (The Brown company will tour Europe, including stops in Berlin, Frankfurt, Stockholm, and Amsterdam, starting the end of next month.)
Boston has been having its own mini-version of BAM's ''Next Wave Festival,'' of which the Brown company was the second part. (The festival started with Philip Glass's multimedia spectacle, ''The Photographer.'')
The Brown company's Boston performance began with her 1980 work ''Opal Loop, '' danced to silence. Unfortunately, the sculpture installation that usually accompanies this piece had to be left behind, and the dance suffered. Something was obviously missing, although Brown's loose-limbed, playful choreography was, as usual, fascinating.
Next came ''Son of Gone Fishin,' '' with watery, rhythmic music by Robert Ashley and costuming -- blue tank-top body suits - by Donald Judd. The seven-member company, including Brown, performed her delightfully inventive choreography with zest. They hopped and walked, slithered and slinked, and occasionally bounced off each other. Often, Brown would have two dancers move in sync, creating a slight bit of focus in a purposely unfocused piece.
But the real highlight of the evening was ''Set and Reset.'' The curtain rose on Rauschenberg's intriguing visual presentation: a rectangle and two pyramids -- about 10 by 5 feet, covered with cloth -- on which a continuous series of black and white film clips was being shown. The images came fast and furious -- cars, bicycles, machinery, strange faces, Indians, cows, and pigs, all types of Americana -- one scene never lasting more than a couple of seconds. After you were thoroughly engrossed in this image blitz, the installation rose slowly to about 20 feet off the stage, while four dancers entered from the rear, stage right. Three were walking side by side, holding perpendicularly above them a fourth, who was walking across the back scrim as they walked across the back of the stage. Marvelous.
Then Laurie Anderson's ''Long Time No See'' came on, with its bouncy rhythms, spunky lyrics, and heavy synthesizer backdrop. If there wasn't enough to disperse one's attention up to this point, add the fact that the side curtains were translucent (intentionally, I'm sure) so that curiosity naturally had you watching the dancers who were standing in the wings.
As to be expected, the choreography was pleasantly innovative; one especially interesting moment was when one of the women took a diving leap through the air, only to be frozen mid-dive by the arms of a suddenly appearing male dancer. All the while you were looking up to see what interesting film image might be flashing across the cloth-covered installation. A speeding downhill skier -- without poles -- was there when the dancer took her leap.
Some might find all of this rather frustrating and confusing. But there are admirable elements in this newest trend in post-modernist art. One is a deemphasis of personal glory. The observer is not expected to focus on the person performing (in this case the dancers); it is obvious they are just one part of the whole.
This is a refreshing change from so much of the ''Me Generation'' personality hype. In fact, often in post-modern choreography, dancers become less and less human and more like pieces of sculpture -- forms and shapes -- and sometimes mechanical. The danger here is a tendency toward an anonymity that is a form of self-annihilation. But Brown's work doesn't seem headed for such an extreme.
Another interesting element is that there is less appeal to the senses and more to consciousness. Sight, hearing, feeling, cannot possibly begin to understand the barrage of images, sounds, feelings that are thrown at you in ''Next Wave'' material. Instead, appreciation of these art forms requires a shift in thought, a willingness to see what is beneath much of common experience.
In sum, what you get from one of these performances is what you bring to it; it is completely subjective. What you are seeing is a product of what you know or understand or have experienced of the forms, shapes, and sounds presented. It is an artistic departure that is truly fascinating, if you're willing to change your concept of what performance should be.