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Reflections on Trisha Brown Dance Company at the ICA

Posted by Sebastian Smee  November 15, 2011 11:57 AM

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ica_brown3_lg.jpgWatching the Trisha Brown Dance Company perform at the ICA on Sunday afternoon, I was put in mind of the performance artist Stelarc's definition of "awareness" as "that which occurs when the body malfunctions."

Brown's dancers were not malfunctioning - they knew exactly what they were doing. But Brown's choreography, it seems to me, is all about breaking down conventions of choreography and classical movement, causing the old forms, the old patterns, to "malfunction" as such. Some new order emerges, some new form of awareness.

If it's true, as someone once wrote, that "there is nothing in the understanding that was not first in the muscles," Brown's dancers are, as far as I'm concerned, sages.

Inevitably, the absence of music from two of the four dances performed by the company over the weekend (Friday and Saturday nights, and Sunday afternoon) only enhanced the sense of acute awareness I'm talking about. In one of the two dances which did feature music ("Foray Foret," 1990), the sounds came from a marching band positioned somewhere off stage. The music, played by the Lexington Marching Band, was now distant and muted, now closer and louder. Sometimes it ceased altogether, but the movements of the dancers on stage continued, and this disjuncture - between music and dance, between presence and absence - was its own kind of malfunctioning, and played its own part in sharpening one's awareness.

I loved the tension in the dancers' movements between taut, linear lines, and a sense of physical unraveling, between balance and collapse. The relationship between these and other opposites created unexpected, syncopated rhymes and near-rhymes, and as I watched I thought of analogies with visual art.

ica_brown5_lg.jpgNot just the old contrast between the order of classicism and the fragmented aesthetic of modernism, but between, in photography, the idea of the "decisive moment" (as in Henri Cartier-Bresson), which art critic Peter Schjeldahl once defined as "an instant of poise in which the past, as blind preparation, pivots and becomes the future, as all-seeing consequence," and the "indecisive moments" captured by Robert Frank in "The Americans."

Schjeldahl describes Frank's photographs as "congested zones of incomplete preparation and undeveloped consequence - 'like life' and 'like America,' to an excruciating fullness of inarticulate, sorrowing symbolization." (Do I wish I could write with Schjeldahl's concision and insight? All the time.)

Brown's dancers captured exactly this sense of "congested zones of incomplete preparation and undeveloped consequence." It felt 'like life,' yes, and - my heart all in confusion - I fell in love with I knew not what as I watched.

Certainly, I had a sense of an inherited language malfunctioning, and of new forms of awareness spurting out, like leaks from clogged and pressurized pipes.

"Dance/Draw," the ICA show which provided the occasion for Trisha Brown's visit to Boston, is full of such moments of new awareness bubbling up as old languages break down. The show, organized by Helen Molesworth, could so easily have been brainy and pedagogical - an undergraduate primer on a relationship between two media - but it's not: There is something unexpectedly heartfelt in the results.

Here, then, since I'm in such a quoting mood, are a few beautiful articulations of the merits of inarticulacy to end with:

"What moves me is the irregular form - the flawed words and stubborn sounds- that affect us whenever we try to say something that is important to us." John Ashbery

"No, incorrect and careless chatter/ words mispronounced and ill-expressed/ evoke emotion's pitter-patter,/ now as before, inside my breast." Pushkin

"Today I noticed that in the big picture I'm doing I was using my brush for absolutely anything. I was amused by it because I was doing something rather delicate and I not only had the big brush but it was all silted with paint. It's like people shouting and using any old word because somehow the way they are shouting will get through. If you know what you want you can use almost anything. An ungrammatical shout is no less clear. It's to do with the urgency." Lucian Freud

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About the author

The Boston Globe Journalist Series: Sebastian Smee
Sebastian Smee is the Globe's art critic, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He joined the paper's staff from Sydney, where he served as the national art critic for The Australian. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SebastianSmee. Read Smee's full bio.

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