BODIES IN TRANSLATION: Week 5, Much Needed Perspective

The Pennsylvania Ballet will be the first American ballet company to learn Trisha Brown’s O zlozony / O composite (performances June 9–12 tickets/info), a 2004 trio made for the Paris Opera Ballet. These essays, written by long time Trisha Brown Company dancer Neal Beasley, detail the experience of setting Brown’s work on the Pennsylvania Ballet dancers.

I’ve spent a lot of time on this trip looking out my hotel window. In the distance I can just make out the arching cables of the Walt Whitman Bridge, whose towers jut in contrast to the low-lying roofs of Southeast Philadelphia. I used to love the lifestyle of living in hotels and being in transit. Having spent so much of my adult life on tour, I’ve grown to enjoy the parenthetical space, the remove from the day-to-day of my life. At times being somewhere else has helped me reframe things, offered perspective. And as a former boyfriend once noted, as we left yet another boring dance performance where seemingly random choreographers were placed side by side, context has everything to do with how something is seen, with the ways in which we assign value.

On Friday—the last Friday I will spend with these dancers—the Company, along with some administrative staff and the other people here directing rehearsals, gathered to watch a run of the entire Balanchine and Beyond program, which premieres this Thursday. It was the first time, really, that anyone had fully seen the work I’ve been doing here, and the first time that I had seen O zlozony / O composite in the context of the other pieces on this program. The number of dancers involved in the other pieces, and the fact that they have more than one cast set to perform, has meant that their rehearsals have always had people watching. Our process has been much more private, at times just myself and one dancer alone in the studio. Ian Hussey, a principal dancer I’ve been working with, told me this week that our rehearsals, on account of their intimacy, have been something of a respite, a bubble in which to focus on work without the other social drama happening in the Company as of late. But Friday was our moment to step out and see how our work would withstand the weight of so many eyes.

The feeling of being watched is so familiar—and yet it never loses its power to transform the way that something feels, even the way it behaves. This is just as true in performance as it has been shown to be in quantum physics. The dancers handled themselves with surprising confidence, showing only momentary stutters and perhaps a bit of nervous acceleration in tempo. I’m not sure that I fared so well, leaving the rehearsal with sweat rings under my arms, and a self-consciousness from feeling equally on display.

This has happened to me every time I have directed a revival of this dance. O zlozony / O composite is usually on a program with much flashier works, with works that revel in the virtuosity of the balletic body and/or the dramatic affect of emotional posturing. It always sits quietly, like a thoughtful student in the corner of a classroom: alert, engaged, but not brazen or overly ambitious. While on its surface it resembles the other pieces and is clearly made for classical dancers, one still feels in its choice of vocabulary and compositional logic that it comes from a different lineage of thought and aesthetics than the one that produced George Balanchine, Hans van Manen, or any of the other choreographers the piece has shared a bill with to date.

Sitting next to the other restagers on Friday, I smiled as they all hummed along to Paul Hindemith’s score for The Four Temperaments, the Balanchine work being performed on this program. They marked the choreography in their chairs, reminisced in whispers about which roles they had danced. At dinner that night, I listened as they swapped stories about all the acquaintances they have in common. I know for a fact that almost no one in that room on Friday had seen much (if any) of Trisha’s other work, though they may know her name. While a lot of this feeling comes more from my own baggage than from the reality of the situation, it can be hard not to feel like an outsider. Though my job here is to reconstruct the choreography, it is hard not to simultaneously feel like an apologist for Trisha Brown.

One of my favorite videos of Trisha is a short documentary that follows the making of M.O., her 1995 dance set to Bach’s Musical Offering. This was the first dance in a series that would directly address a relationship to music, a series that led to her making operas, choreographing song cycles, working with jazz composers, and ultimately to making O zlozony / O composite for the Paris Opera Ballet. (Had she not felt the need to place her work in conversation with historical canons like baroque music, she may not have felt the need to place her work in conversation with classical ballet.) I thought of this documentary after Friday’s rehearsal, not because of M.O.’s connection to O zlozony / O composite, but because of a moment in that documentary where, somewhat flustered, Trisha talks about no longer being willing or interested in handholding her audience and explaining, again and again, the artistic developments and currents of thought that took place earlier in the 20th century and had laid the ground for her explorations. She had been contextualizing her work for people almost as long as she had been making it, and had grown tired of it. There is a section of the choreography in M.O. in which a solo figure moves alongside a group meandering as a subdued mass as if “looking for her gestures,” as Trisha described it. Though not characteristic of her thinking, she likened this to “a metaphor for me looking for my way, me as an abstract choreographer looking for her position, modern to baroque.” When pressed by the filmmaker for an explanation of the feeling that section evoked in her, of what in her life it might feel attached to, she replied to the voice behind the camera, “I don’t connect it up with a specific event or feeling. Sorry to disappoint you, sir.”

When she says things like that it’s hard not to love Trisha Brown. Making art is an incredibly brave enterprise, and her willingness to stand firm in her choices and never pander to context is part of what has always impressed me about her. Hearing again the succinct, unapologetic way that she described her making; watching (and remembering) how doggedly she pursued and refined the perfectly unexpected choreographic choice; and feeling the swells of emotion rise and fall as wave after wave of O zlozony / O composite’s gently hypnotic choreography rushed past my eyes in rehearsal—remembering all of these put my own self-consciousness in much-needed perspective. This work is beautiful and these dancers have shown themselves capable of handling it with maturity and mastery. It’s never easy to put one’s work in the world for evaluation, and the point has never been to make everybody happy—certainly not for Trisha. As the week of the premiere rolls into view, it is lessons like these that become the greatest gift of working with an artist of her clarity and dedication. She continues, via her work, to teach me how to be in the world, how to pay attention to the precarious edge of a moment, to look for the unexpectedly beautiful and to laugh at myself. For me, beyond all the physical principles and visual richness, it is this way of being that forms the beating heart of Trisha’s work. This is the thing I carry with me as the treasure of time spent in Trisha’s universe. It is the thing that I offer up to this week’s audiences, and to the dancers who will once again bring her magic to life.

Neal Beasley