Watching with eyes wide shut

Trisha Browndance Company | Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
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The Independent Culture

On the principle that the number of fellow-professionals watching you is a gauge of how important you are, Trisha Brown must be very important indeed. Founder member of American post-modern dance in the 1960s, she redefined dance. She jettisoned set steps in favour of gestural movement and improvisation; she preferred parking lots and rooftops to theatres. She even had her dancers crawl up and down walls and trees.

On the principle that the number of fellow-professionals watching you is a gauge of how important you are, Trisha Brown must be very important indeed. Founder member of American post-modern dance in the 1960s, she redefined dance. She jettisoned set steps in favour of gestural movement and improvisation; she preferred parking lots and rooftops to theatres. She even had her dancers crawl up and down walls and trees.

The question is whether her present work deserves equal interest. Her radicalism has certainly mellowed enough to satisfy conventional concepts of dance. These days she uses stages and, goodness, music. Her UK touring programme even includes two pieces created in collaboration with the jazz composer, Dave Douglas.

His taped score for Five Part Weather Invention is classy jazz, and so, too, perhaps is that for Rapture to Leon James if you like the disparate tonalities and percussion of bebop. Five Part, though, contains tango rhythms and sounds, including an accordion and violin. Brown's movement exploits the whole body, impulses producing disparate inflections as if finding new segments and joints. There are her characteristic group patterns, where order dissolves into disorder, the dancers collecting in lines like particles drawn to a magnetic field, then loosening into small eddies. And when the music halts for an interlude of burlesque chortles and raspberries, she echoes it with anarchically collapsing dancers.

But the choreography remains dwarfed by the music, so that I found myself listening more than watching. This also happened with Twelve Ton Rose, a title referring to Anton Webern's unidentified 12-tone composition. The sound takes sparseness and astringency to new extremes, yet manages to evoke a world of rich mysteries.

In that context, Burt Barr's dresses, with ludicrously moving attached cords, looked like designer sabotage, although the combination of red and black helped underline the choreographic structures.

Brown's 12 dancers are skilled and attractive, but could not overcome the fractured dance text of Rapture to Leon James. Intended as a tribute to the 1930s Lindy Hopper, the impact was less rapture than dullness, and where you might have expected a joyous sensuousness of movement, instead you had restraint with only the occasional smile.

* Touring to Grand Theatre, Blackpool (8 Nov); Corn Exchange, Brighton (11 Nov); Theatre Royal, Bath (13 Nov)

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