Park Avenue Armory
New York, NY
July 12, 2012
By Martha Sherman
Copyright © 2012 by Martha Sherman
America’s love affair with cars has no better saleswoman than choreographer Trisha Brown. In the reconstruction of her 1991 classic “Astral Converted” at the Park Avenue Armory, nine silver-costumed dancers brought sleek, smooth power to life, dancing Brown’s inventive moves in an environment created by Robert Rauschenberg, to a score by John Cage.
As the audience entered the dark cavern of the Armory’s Drill Hall, everything looked small except enormous pairs of spotlights, like peering eyes or headlights illuminating the square dance platform in the center. Once the dance started up, these lights switched off and Rauschenberg’s car lamps took over. The dancers moved and activated sensors in the towers. These directed the lights --which moved and changed directions like the ongoing vehicle on a winding road. The sensors also activated Cage’s score, called “Eight,” named for the number of instruments used, including woodwinds as well as horns; it was a forest of sounds, dense but not harsh, often evoking the bleating of traffic.
As evocative as the visuals and sounds, it was the dancers who brought the idea to life. In sleek unitards (the women’s costumes also embellished by a panel of floating cloth,) they shifted smoothly among patterns, and levitated between layers of movement. In one scene, dancers lay with their faces against the floor and knees high, their legs moving into back bends and the women’s costumes floating into arcs along with their backs. The shape was both sharp and round, as if engineered for the best car – and human body – design.
When they lay in patterns of four each on either side of the stage, they were like chevron stripes that stretched and bubbled. Like a fine ballet chorus, when the lines weren’t perfectly straight, the image was flawed. But the imperfections were outweighed by the power and grace of the movement: their arms spread like wings, and their smooth movement transitions barely left room for a breath.
Brown never took herself – or this car homage – too seriously. The futuristic dancers were not beyond a bit of sweeping up (literally.) In several scenes, dancers with long-handled brooms moved around partners on the floor, sweeping them in fluid motions, and using the broom handles as tall shifting visuals. In another playful image, trios of dancers moved straight downstage, the central dancer being softly pushed to tilt left or right. As the dancer was shifted simultaneously side-to-side and forward, it seemed like Brown was bending the laws of physics, as she often does (walking on walls comes to mind.)
When she wasn’t toying with physics, Brown built elegant dance sequences. In one of several lovely duets, Samuel von Wentz and Megan Modorin slid in and out of intertwined poses and lifts. They moved into parallel handstands then smooth cartwheels, thigh to thigh, like precision airplanes wing-to-wing: almost, but never, touching. In another scattered pattern of graceful lifts, two dancers lifted a third, a woman in arabesque, as the cloth of her costume floated behind her gracefully outstretched leg.
The lines of the dance offered an infinity of smooth, non-stop motion, mixing classical jumps, turns, and leg lifts with sharp elbows and deep angled squats. The dancers were never out of sight, whether in the scene or not. As dancers moved off the stage, they were still visible at the edges of the light, watching the action onstage without the pesky barrier of stage wings. The dancers’ privilege of momentarily being out of view was exchanged for the audience privilege of everything in view.
The dance’s ending was a surprise; a crisp group image danced to a forest of horns, and then a blackout. As if not ready, the audience paused before offering its ovation. Then, we stepped out into the headlights and cacophony of Park Avenue traffic, where there was new poetry in the street, after viewing it through the lens of “Astral Converted.”
copyright © 2012 by Martha Sherman
Photos by Stephanie Berger
Top: Samuel von Wentz and Megan Modorin in “Astral Converted”
Bottom: Trisha Brown Company in “Astral Converted” with set by Robert Rauschenberg