Saturday, February 5, 2011

MoMA's Space, Pioneered

photo Ruby Washington for the NYTimes

When Frank Gehry purchased an old power station in 1970’s Soho, he was eager to see it populated with dancing. The long narrow space was brought to life in the fog-drenched premiere of Trisha Brown’s Opal Loop. Examples of similar synergies of architecture and dancing abound. But topping the list in my book is the recent animation of the Museum of Modern Art’s five story atrium with early works by Brown, another in the long list of her Company’s terrific 40th anniversary events.

Trisha Brown’s work with 10’ sticks and pedestrian rulegames, as well as her very refined explorations of movement designed to ‘hit’ designated points on a cube, could not be better suited to the soaring space. Works like Sticks, Scallops and Locus revel in the play of shifting angles and formations as dancers conform to or slither around imagined or actual boundaries. These dances are architectural from the get go.

Tasks are transparent: ‘balance a stick at a perfect 45 degree angle while sliding from a stand to supine.’ ‘Trace arcs around the perimeter of the space while moving shoulder to shoulder with other dancers who might chose arcs of unpredictable sizes.’
And then, in the interpretations of the onlookers next to me– ‘move within the confines of a square taped on the ground.’ Locus, if seen as fulfilling only this intention, is only partially understood. Is it important that the audience knows that Diane Madden’s every move is in relation to 27 points on her cube? That she takes four passes through, hitting the same sequence of points each time? And that a lot of the movement is the result of layering together two or more contradictory imperatives, making for curious internal ripples and wild splays? However you see it, Madden’s delivery of Locus is silky and clear, like pure water.

Changing into bright red clothing, she is the one who initiates the ‘telephone’ game of largely upper body action that is Roof Piece Relayered. In the five story atrium, 10 dancers play a game easy enough for us to trace, but one we can never see fully, as they are placed on every side, in windows and ledges at every level. One dances in a long notched opening set in an otherwise pristine white wall with a delicate white Calder mobile sailing just behind. One dances on a catwalk so high in the air, we see from underneath.

The audience member has the wondrous opportunity of framing each view for herself. This task is simple when standing in the atrium. But as soon as you decide to venture onto higher or lower levels, the choices and views take on much greater complexity.

To reach the openings into the atrium, you pass great artworks, and look through them at the dance. The dancers—red, sculptural—assert an exhilarating parity with Cornell, Rothko and Duchamp. They are art works up close, with viewers coming right to the edges of their marked off ‘stage’ spaces. Unlike the interior of the Guggenheim Museum where all of the space is always in view, the Modern’s punched out windows and balconies allow you to see partially into the big opening; then you pass through ‘closed’ spaces before the view opens out again. The effect here is of watching the performance by encircling it, and of a building that functions as a lens for performance. When passing between one opening and another, the knowledge of a performance going on, but hidden, is tantalizing. The sense of space in relation to dance explodes outward.

Recalling Brown’s predeliction for returning to rework great ideas, it’s not unlike what we experience when, in ForĂȘt Foray (1990), Brown sets a marching band to circling the outside of the building in which the performance takes place. A dance of the mind.