Never Say Never

This woman has no Sleep Number: A performer from Trisha Brown's 'El Trilogy'
Caitlin Sims

In her four decades of making dance, New York-based choreographer Tricia Brown had never before set a piece to jazz music. Her sonic palette has hardly been limited over the years: Having started out with the seminal and far-ranging Judson Dance Theater, Brown has choreographed to music by everyone from Robert Ashley and Laurie Anderson to Bach. Now a high-profile commission to work with jazz trumpeter and composer Dave Douglas seems set to undo that "never" in a collaboration titled El Trilogy.

This change in direction seems perfectly agreeable to Brown. She was merely waiting, it seems, for the right moment to reveal itself.

"I want to do what is significant and important for me," says Brown, speaking by telephone from Los Angeles while on tour with her 31-year-old company. (The show makes a local stop Saturday, February 9 at the University of Minnesota's Northrop Auditorium.) "I can't promise you what I will do next. It's whatever my antennae pick up."

Indeed, Brown, in addition to choreographing, also directs opera and creates visual art. This broad creative sensibility and genuine instinct for "the revolution" both within and around her have fueled one of the most surprising artistic careers possible. "I have a self-perpetuating machine that is always moving forward," she explains thoughtfully regarding her penchant for reinvention. "But not absenting the past. I can't shed everything."

In fact, past, present, and future collide freely in the three parts of the Brown-Douglas troika. In the first section, "Five Part Weather Intervention," a dancer performs a lush phrase only to have a second dancer mirror it by stepping in as close as possible without touching the first. The interaction is as unpredictable as nature. But mostly, says Brown, it allows for play with symmetry and abstraction. Likewise, the second part, "Rapture to Leon James," celebrates the joyous dancing of a famed lindy hopper at Harlem's Savoy Hotel. At the same time, this section inverts his steps, creating head-scratching moments for performers and ultimately leading to the thrilling feel of history running in reverse. The evening concludes with "Groove and Countermove," which echoes the earlier sections but also introduces new vocabulary. This groove is designed to accelerate the pace and add to the playful spirit. It's an opportunity, says Brown, to let her skilled dancers fly out of the gates like racehorses.

Brown, who describes her process as one dedicated to an exploration of ideas in cycles, sees her relationship with Douglas continuing as a result of their collaboration. But the role of jazz in her future work remains indeterminate: Who knows what other "nevers" remain to be undone?

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