Components Inseparable: Beautiful Trisha Brown Dance Program at ADF

I go to so much performance because it feeds the ravening aesthetic beast in me that is rarely satiated. Yet occasionally there’s a night at the theater like an orchestrated feast, refined and sustaining just to the point of repletion. Any more, in the words of Fred Chappell, would be a superfluity. The American Dance Festival‘s presentation of the Trisha Brown Dance Company program was that feast on July 19. For this viewer, it was the most fulfilling concert of this ADF season so far. The program repeats tonight only at the Durham Performing Arts Center.

The Trisha Brown Dance Company. Photo: Laurent Philippe.

The Trisha Brown Dance Company. Photo: Laurent Philippe.

The three-dance program includes a marvelous recent work, full of space and moving air, but the other two pieces are important works from 1983 and 1994. You could go to Set and Reset (1983) for the Laurie Anderson music alone, but then you’d miss the Robert Rauschenberg visuals and the extraordinary dancing. Perhaps more than any other choreographer of her period, Trisha Brown excels at making dances that appear to actually include randomness–they are so without artistic pretense that when something happens like two dancers bumping, you ask, was that an accident? To give the appearance of random accident within a loosely patterned design is very high art. Brown’s movement style combines clean geometries made with angular body shapes and extensions, with delicious fluidity, enhanced here by Rauschenberg’s sheer loose costumes that float and ripple. The amazing movement looks free, unplanned almost, as one dancer performs it; when other dancers join in, patterns develop and dissolve as Anderson’s rich music swells and swirls.

If You Couldn’t See Me, a solo from 1994, is danced here by Leah Morrison (who also stands out in both ensemble dances). There’s just the stage with plain black curtains, the simple lighting, the spare music, and the one dancer in a pale leotard with long panels front and back. We never see her face, but we see her back, her ankles, glimpse the bottoms of her feet. We see the long legs turned to the side, divided by the rippling columns of fabric; we see lovely shapes described by the arms. The motion is fluid, but because there can be no turns, the dancer’s progress back and forth, up and down, the stage has a snakelike quality. It is pure dance, mysterious to the mind, but knowable by the soul.

I’m Going to Toss My Arms–If You Catch Them They’re Yours (2011), set to the whirr of the large onstage fans and music by Alvin Curran (Toss and Find), has much in common with Set and Reset, but is nearly 30 years more refined. You see this especially in the swelling, breathing quality of the expansion/dispersion/reassembling of the mass of dancers, and in the variations of each well-explored theme. The wonderful costumes by Kaye Voyce are very like the dance. At first they appear bland and the same. But as soon as the eight dancers begin to move, the clothes reveal their differences. The fans are blowing, the clothes are responding…and when they are discarded to the floor, the fan-blown air scoots them along. There is something about all this moving air, and the liquid fluidity of the dancing while the internally moving fans stand stalwart in the golden light, that renders the viewer ecstatic, even the next day.

Prancing in The Showroom with ponydance: ADF @ Motorco

ponydance in the grappling stage of their How Did It All Go Right? At Motorco, 7/17/13. Photo: Grant Halverson, courtesy ADF.

ponydance in the grappling stage of their How Did It All Go Right? At Motorco, 7/17/13. Photo: Grant Halverson, courtesy ADF.

Comedy dance theater is a rare thing. Possibly it is unique to the Irish company ponydance, currently performing at the American Dance Festival–but not in a theater. Instead, the ebullient four-member company dances and prances, slithers and slides on the concrete floor in front of the bar, with no real separation between performers and audience, in the Showroom side of Motorco Music Hall in Durham’s hopping DIY district. Motorco is a place one expects to have fun, and not bother one’s head with cruel facts or baffling philosophy. With ponydance cavorting and joking, much fun is had–and the only lingering question is the same as the dance’s title: How Did It All Go Right?  (I think the answer is, sass and smarts.) The program (just under an hour) repeats through Sunday, July 21. As of this writing, there were a few tickets left for the Sunday performances only.

ponydance in their How Did It All Go Right?  At Motorco, 7/17/13. Photo: Grant Halverson, courtesy ADF.

Leonie McDonagh and Neil Hainsworth of ponydance in their How Did It All Go Right? At Motorco, 7/17/13. Photo: Grant Halverson, courtesy ADF.

The show opens with a good-humored mockery of every long-winded stage introduction you’ve ever heard, given by a pixie-faced dancer with fabulously curvaceous anatomy. Paula O’Reilly–in a different dress, as Drama Queen–will soon join, or I should say, interrupt, company artistic director Leonie McDonagh and dancer Neil Hainsworth in their pick-up dance of mutual attraction. Danced in a bar, set in a pub–what other song could they begin with but “Sexual Healing?” Combining comedy, narrative dramatics derived from life’s favorite drama–sexual connection–with audience teasing, and  fresh acrobatic dancing,  How Did It All Go Right? is a complete hoot.

Critic Roy C. Dicks got snagged in the audience participation games. Sitting next to him, I got nothing but the costume Leonie McDonagh had been wearing. At Motorco, 7/17/13. Photo: Grant Halverson, courtesy ADF.

Critic Roy C. Dicks got snagged in the audience participation games. Sitting next to him, I got nothing but the costume Leonie McDonagh had been wearing. At Motorco, 7/17/13. Photo: Grant Halverson, courtesy ADF.

The basic story is augmented by the post-post-modern conversion of the Drama Queen to show director, chiding and bossing the sleek McDonagh, and reminding us that this is an art event, not merely another evening down at the pub. The troupe also makes a great deal of use of the audience, getting very close to those in the front row–grabbing their hands, toppling into their laps, sweeping one lucky person up to twirl around the floor. The shenanigans continue til closing time, when the long-suffering bartender gets his moment. Jetting out from behind the bar in leopard print boxers and some foxy gladiator shoes, he puts Irish dance/disco moves on “She’s A Lady,”  and lashes out some stunning fouettés  before leaping onto the bar and shakin’ his booty while the other three dancers do a back-up routine wearing similar gear. I was laughing so hard I could barely hear the Drama Queen reprise her announcer role: “You have been wonderful. We have been wonderful.” They took their bows accompanied by Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual.” With ponydance, it’s clearly not unusual to have fun with anyone. Perfect.

Duane Watters in the flashy finale of ponydance's How Did It All Go Right? At Motorco, 7/17/13. Photo: Grant Halverson, courtesy ADF.

Duane Watters in the flashy finale of ponydance’s How Did It All Go Right? At Motorco, 7/17/13. Photo: Grant Halverson, courtesy ADF.

Motorco band

Remember Her With a Dance

A lovely lady who loved the dance died  yesterday. Jacqueline Zinn became associated in my mind with the American Dance Festival years before I ever made her acquaintance–and that’s all we were, acquaintances. When I began attending the ADF regularly in 1983, I noticed a particularly handsome couple always in attendance. Some years later, I met Doug Zinn through his foundation work, and he introduced me to Jackie. Over the years we had many brief conversations fueled by the electricity of the dances, but the image I hold of her is that of her face before a performance, open and lit with eager anticipation.

Jacqueline Marie Stanislaw Zinn

Jacqueline Marie Stanislaw Zinn

Over the years while she worked as research scientist and administrator, and became the mother of four, she appeared in the audience at ADF regularly, and frequently at Duke Performances and Carolina Performing Arts. In an inexplicable way, she became a kind of talisman for me. At the 2012 ADF Gala, we sat together and enjoyed a long desultory conversation as the crowd flowed by and her menfolk came and went. I complimented her on her chic pink cloche, noting how beautifully it suited her face; she said, thanks, her hair was growing in, but it wasn’t that far along yet. Suddenly it dawned on me that her husband and sons were not just sporting their sartorial splendor, but were in pink for a reason.

I looked for her at every performance of the CPA Rite of Spring at 100 season, but saw her once only. She was obviously frail. But she was sitting down front, her face just the same: What will happen? It will probably be marvelous.

Jacqueline Zinn was an ADF student the first year the Festival came to Durham, 1978, and an ardent supporter of the ADF ever since. I want to light a candle to her memory–in the form of a check to the ADF. But first, I need to see what ADF is bringing us tonight. It will probably be marvelous.

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