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Stepping forward and looking back

Trisha Brown celebrates anniversary with three works at Jacob's Pillow

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By Jeffrey Gantz
Globe Correspondent / May 22, 2011

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Is it fair to call Trisha Brown the dean of postmodern dance? Back in 1962, when she helped found the Judson Dance Theater, Brown was just one of many avant-garde artists — David Gordon, Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs, and Meredith Monk among them — who boldly went where modern dance had never gone before in performances at the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village.

Since then, she’s sent a man in a harness walking down the side of a seven-story Manhattan building. She’s had people performing on a dozen Manhattan rooftops at the same time, and on their backs on rafts floating in water. And she’s searched out the inner dancer in all of us, making art out of pedestrian movement, her succession of ordinary-looking ideas gradually accumulating and creating a human geometry as her performers fling themselves into one another’s arms.

Now, nearly 50 years later, the dancer/choreographer is celebrating the 40th anniversary of her Trisha Brown Dance Company. Few of her peers can look back on such a rich and varied repertoire of creations. Or collaborations. At Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 1996 Next Wave Festival, she performed a duet version of her 1994 solo “If You Couldn’t See Me’’ with Mikhail Baryshnikov.

“When Mikhail and I danced together in ‘You Can See Us,’ ’’ she recalls, “I marveled at how he learned the piece. He sort of diagrammed the air with his hand, writing numbers on it sometimes. I had never seen anyone do that.’’

At 74, she’s still at it. Brown is bringing three typically witty, thought-provoking works from three decades to the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, including a new piece, “Les Yeux et l’âme.’’ Also on the bill: her iconic 1983 collaboration with Laurie Anderson and Robert Rauschenberg, “Set and Reset,’’ and another Rauschenberg collaboration, 1991’s “Foray Forêt.’’

Rauschenberg contributed more than just a video installation to “Set and Reset.’’

“Early on in the choreographic process,’’ Brown explains, “Bob saw some scrappy pieces of black velour hanging along the sides of the studio, trying to look like the legs.’’ She’s referring to the lengths of fabric that form what are commonly called a stage’s wings. With his help, they became props. In addition, “Bob added gorgeous filmy white transparent costumes silkscreened with pale-gray-to-black urban industrial images. No blue jeans. No underwear, either. He did not want lingerie lines to interfere with the body as a body.’’

And Anderson? Brown says she “mixed the soundtracks in her studio while she watched a videotape of the nearly completed choreography. A clang is constant throughout; so is the lyric ‘Long Time No See,’ along with instrumentation and sound effects that fit the dance like a gauntlet to a hand, or not.’’

These days, at an age when many choreographers are retrenching, or looking back, Brown continues to explore. Her two most recent pieces are set to music by the Baroque composer Jean-Philippe Rameau. To some, there might seem to be a contradiction between the formalism of dance in Baroque operas and Brown’s casual movement.

But not to Brown. “I am known,’’ she points out, “for having taught singers to dance what are quite intricate choreographies, challenging genres and expectations of movement in opera as it is traditionally performed in our time. So perhaps there is a naturalness in the relationship of music and dancing in Rameau’s operas that has especially caught my imagination and inspired me in choreographing.’’

“Les Yeux et l’âme’’ is a dance excerpt from the production of Rameau’s mid-18th-century opera “Pigmalion’’ that Brown and conductor William Christie premiered at the Holland Festival in Amsterdam last year. The piece is based on the story in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses’’ about a sculptor who carves a woman out of ivory and then falls in love with her. The title is French for “the eyes and the soul.’’ This, Brown says, “is a variation of what the statue says to Pygmalion when she comes to life: ‘I can see in your eyes what I feel in my soul.’ ’’

Pygmalion may have brought his statue to life, but it’s Trisha Brown who’s taught her to dance.

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.

TRISHA BROWN DANCE COMPANY

At: Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, Aug. 10-14. Tickets: $59.50-$64.50. 413-243-0745, www.jacobspillow.org

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