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Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University
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North Carolina
Durham, NC
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Simplicity up close marks Trisha Brown Dance Company's "In Plain Site"

by Amanda Abrams
November 5, 2016
Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University
2001 Campus Drive
Durham, NC 27705
(919) 684-4444
The Trisha Brown Dance Company’s performance, “In Plain Site,” at Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art on Oct. 29 was beautiful, spare, and serene. The dancers performed clean-lined movements that hinted at—and sometimes plainly spoke of—their abundant dance talents.

And yet, when the show was over, what stayed with me was not a sense of the choreography or the body’s possibilities or the physics of motion. It was, instead, a smile I received from one of the dancers.

I’ll back up. “In Plain Site” is a site-specific show that utilizes elements of the company’s repertory (Brown retired in 2013), recombining them to suit whatever location has been chosen. In the case of this visit to Duke, the company performed at the university’s Nasher Museum, as well as at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens. At the museum, the building’s cavernous lobby was emptied and delineated with masking tape; the company used three different spots on the tile expanse, and audience members stood or sat on the floor.

So it was a very intimate experience. At times, the dancers were only a few feet away, and that allowed us observers to feel like a part of the show in a way that would’ve been impossible with a traditional stage and lighting that serves as a wall between performers and watchers.

The closeness was welcome. Brown was a contemporary of Merce Cunningham and apparently shared his passion for utilizing the body in a dispassionate manner. Unlike Cunningham, though, who was passionate about composition and structure, Brown’s pieces often felt more like experiments utilizing the human body—certainly not stories, and often lacking even the recognizable beginning and ending elements that most dance pieces provide.

But that was OK. Because there was a clarity, a kind of zen peacefulness to the dancers, who were dressed in white from head to toe, and their movements. From the first piece, in which the dancers traveled around the four sides of the stage space—sometimes in a line and sometimes in unpredictable loops—to other pieces that played with balance, shape, and timing, the choreography felt like deceptively simple movement explorations that were in fact full of nuances. And the feeling of quiet helped the audience become absorbed in what was going on in front of us.

Around the middle of the second piece, dancer Tara Lorenzen was at the edge of the space, finishing up a movement and turning to rejoin the others. I was sitting right there and out of the blue, she caught my eye and smiled. Not a full smile; it was one of those half-smiles that women give each other as a way of saying, “I see you.” But this was warm and genuine, the opposite of the dead-eyed face that so many dancers put on when they’re onstage.

Lorenzen seemed to take a lead role in the company and performed a solo near the end of the show, so I was pretty sure her smile wasn’t prohibited, as it is by so many choreographers. And so I began watching the dancers more closely. What I saw was them: their jubilation, concentration, grimaces when something didn’t go quite right, lightly furrowed brows. It became clear that Brown’s choreography isn’t just about using the body as an object; she allows her dancers to be people who happen to be moving through the space and trying things out.

That was particularly true in the third piece, “Leaning Duets,” in which pairs of dancers clasped hands and walked along a diagonal line, leaning away from each other at steep angles. It wasn’t simply an investigation of the physics of movement, as Brown’s seminal “Man Walking Down the Side of a Building” seems to be. Instead, the piece featured dancers engaged in something they’ve obviously practiced numerous times but that’s still tricky (as evidenced by the dancers who leaned too far and wound up touching the floor to regain their balance). Their facial expressions and personal movement qualities added incredible depth to movements that would otherwise have been little more than exercises.

Of course, the show wasn’t composed solely of these simple explorations. Several of the pieces featured dancers sharing weight and balancing on each other in innovative ways, and others included more typical dance phrases (and even music!) that allowed the performers to show off their copious skills. But even when it included pointed feet and limbs moving fluidly through space, the choreography—and the dancers—maintained a humble, almost pedestrian style.

Would the show have been as engrossing had the audience been seated at a distance? Probably not. The movements were undoubtedly interesting, but being so close to the dancers made it an experience, and not just a performance—and a delightfully fresh one at that.
Trisha Brown Dance Company performing 'In Plain Site' at another venue.

Trisha Brown Dance Company performing "In Plain Site" at another venue.

Photo © & courtesy of Duke Performances

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