It was interesting to see Trisha Brown Dance Company at Dance Umbrella the day after seeing Wayne McGregor | Random Dance at Sadler’s Wells. By all rights the two should have been seen in the opposite order.

Toss © Laurent Philippe
Toss
© Laurent Philippe

Brown has been a prominent figure on the New York dance scene since the 60s. She began her own company in 1970 after leaving the experimental Judson Dance Theater, and her work is defined by the art of the period. An extension of the philosophy of modern dance, which was conceived in opposition to the unnatural – and aristocratic – gestures of Romantic ballet, Brown’s choreography begins with the kinetic movements of everyday life and works out from there. Walking, running, sitting, rolling – elements of these gestures are used with only a dash of stylization and a sprinkle of the self-conscious. Other elements of the everyday also play through the productions themselves.

Oddly, the vocabulary is not that different from Random Dance, which at moments looks like Trisha Brown on steroids. Both choreographers have an affinity for the geometric and the abstract. Brown, however, traces her geometry from the everyday as well, the buildings and constructions that are such a presence and force within New York City itself. Perhaps it’s that connection to the lineaments of the material world that surrounds and impacts us that gives her choreography a softer, more human look. Even her dancers look softer, as if any moment they could sit down next to you in the audience and start up a conversation.

The programme, “Proscenium Works, 1979–2011”, consisted of three pieces from different parts of Brown’s career. The opening piece, Astral Convertible, premièred in 1989, with a sound score by John Cage (the composition Eight, which was actually added to the piece in 1991), and sets and costumes by Robert Rauschenberg. People often mistake Cage’s ideology of chance as a determining factor in the making of art with improvisation, but Cage’s music is always thoroughly thought-out and meticulous in its realization. It also is imbued with a kind of gentleness, and that was realized in the dance, which begins with the dancers in two lines on the floor stretching away from the audience, rolling and waving in unison. There is a clear link between Cage and Brown’s aesthetics.

The constructions that comprised the sets were towers of low-tech, lightweight supports bolted together and laced with lights that looked rather like car headlights, subtly playing with the “convertible” part of the work’s title. As did the silvery, oddly gendered leotard costumes, the women’s costumes vaguely resembled the Spirit of Ecstasy found atop Rolls-Royce bonnets. Humour, low-key and whimsical, was definitely an aspect of this artistic collaboration.

The second piece, Watermotor, was one of Brown’s earlier pieces, which she premièred herself in 1978. She described it in the programme notes as “unpredictable, personal, articulate, dense, changeful, wild assed. My model was improvisation... Don’t look directly at what you are doing”. Danced with ease and naturalness by Samuel Wentz, this lovely three-minute work is performed without music, and has all the qualities Brown describes, along with the inevitability of flowing water.

The programme closed with I’m going to toss my arms – if you catch them they’re yours, a 30-minute piece with original music, Toss and Find, by Alvin Curran. Premièred in 2011, this is, reportedly, the 77-year-old choreographer’s last work. In it, what the audience sees as the right-hand side of the stage is filled with humongous fans, blowing away at full blast. The dancers stand and move through the fans. They are dressed in loose, white costumes that resemble lightweight martial arts outfits. In the course of the dance the wind from the fans blows away their pyjamas, leaving them déshabillé, until at last they are in bathing suits that run a colour spectrum from red to green to black (costumes designed by Kaye Voyce). There’s an elemental quality to it all. Just as gravity was a defining factor of Brown’s work, here it is wind and the power of its transformative hand on our lives. But in spite of that, the dancers – or is it we humans? – retain a lightness that is both serious and joyful.