In her early dances, Trisha Brown eschewed the trappings of theatre. The work was transparently utilitarian, setting out problems and solving them in galleries, on rooftops and down the sides of buildings, without lighting or music or costumes. But by the 1980s she wanted an audience and began to accommodate, by delightfully contrary means, venues that would attract such a thing. Three of these proscenium pieces opened Bard College’s seven-week arts festival as part of the Brown ensemble’s three-year international tour, which ends in December 2015; the troupe too will come to an end then, as the choreographer, aged 77, has suffered debilitating strokes.
The seminal, widely acclaimed Set and Reset, from 1983, surrounds itself in emergency. Alarm bells, train whistles and a relentless pulse sound throughout the Laurie Anderson score. On Robert Rauschenberg’s geometrical set, a Dadaist jumble of newsreels flash. But the dancing is all easy-going translucence, without present or imminent drama. The eight loose-jointed dancers lined up or bumped against each other only to disperse into Rauschenberg’s see-through wings. So much for the bounds of theatre.
Throughout the 1994 solo If you couldn’t see me – another pleasurably perverse ode to the proscenium – a pristine Cecily Campbell faced away while her limbs angled and straightened as if mapping the stage’s dimensions. And Brown’s final work, I’m going to toss my arms – if you catch them they’re yours, begins with everyone shunted to the side amid a mass of dangerously whirring industrial fans that eventually blow the bulk of their costumes off.
At Brown’s best, the combination of unstagey movement and self-conscious play with stage convention electrifies the dance. At worst, the masterly lighting, music and set amount to so much dressing for mere noodling around. But at Bard the performers were so overcome with lassitude that you could hardly tell the difference or, as it happened, appreciate the three dances’ thorough excellence.
In the lobby, people gathered around a film of Brown performing her 1978 solo Watermotor. She seemed to be making up the dance as she went. She was sensual and capricious in equal measure. The performers onstage, by contrast, seemed less to be dancing than to be remembering dancing, in their sleep – as if they had already lived through the last dance.