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Clever dance-history lesson from postmodern pioneer

At Premiere Dance Theatre in Toronto, on Tuesday

If modern dance was the revolution that overthrew the rules and aesthetics of classical ballet, the postmodern movement -- as epitomized by New York's Judson Dance Theatre in the 1960s -- opened the floodgates to a dance world where anything is possible. The current reigning queen of postmodernism is Trisha Brown, a founding member of JDT in 1960.

The legendary Brown started her own company in 1970 and, now 63, continues to produce impressive work. To appreciate her choreography is to understand that her world deals in abstracts, with form and structure being the key. Another element in her work is the architecture of background created in collaboration with famous visual artists and composers. Her program at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre is clever, because she includes a work from the past and two from the present. Audiences are thus given an enjoyable history lesson in just what a Brown piece is all about.

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Set and Reset (1983) and Five Part Weather Invention (1999) contain similar elements, but within quite different treatments. Telltale Brownisms are embedded in both pieces, such as the breezy, easy pedestrian movement vocabulary, the large arm swings and body slithers, the raised knees and the wheelie-turns on the ball of the foot, the pointed hands and clenched fists.

Brown usually explores her ideas in cycles of three dances. Set and Reset obviously belongs to an experimentation into repeating dance sequences, while Five Part Weather Invention is the second of her ongoing inquiry into jazz music.

Laurie Anderson's score for Set and Reset is made up of a lively series of electronic music themes and occasional fragmented voice input. Robert Rauschenberg's visual presentation includes a gauze rectangle and two pyramids that each contain projectors spewing out multiple, superimposed images from old black-and-white documentary films. His costumes for the seven dancers are diaphanous pants and tops that repeat the grainy black, white and grey theme. So clever is the architecture of this dance, that as history repeats endlessly on film, and themes loop back in the music, Brown's choreography shifts her dancers across the stage in restless pathways like a kaleidoscope. Rauschenberg's see-through side teasers further add to the cinematic quality of the work as does the dark back scrim, behind which two dancers occasionally take a stroll. The totality of the vision of Set and Reset is quite astonishing.

Five Part Weather Invention is as colourful as the former piece is muted, with the dancers garbed in Terry Winters's bright-yellow, orange and turquoise outfits. Winters's large backdrop is particularly interesting. It could be lined music paper with the notes scribbled out to form a large, circular tornado with the pen. Dave Douglas's Charms of the Night Sky score alternates between fragments of bluesy and progressive riffs, and the droll dance follows the ups and downs, and dips and slides of the music.

The most fascinating aspect in this piece is how Brown has kept a certain logic to her movement patterns to follow the lines of the music, yet has also managed to show the improvisational quality of jazz itself. While the basic structure finds the dancers in lines, or clear geometric patterns, the lines are allowed to waver and quiver, while mathematical precision is broken by a dancer's fall. The multilayered Five Part Weather Invention is jam-packed with interesting details.

The dessert of the evening is Brown's 1994 solo If you couldn't see me. Rauschenberg has clothed Brown in an attractive side-slit dress and exposed back, and has also provided reflective electronic music as a score. Spencer Brown's side lighting bathes the dancer in gorgeous red hues that outline every muscle and movement. The clever title says it all; Brown performs the solo with her back to the audience. And because we can't see her mature face and breasts, the illusion is one of youth, executing high kicks and jumps with panache. It is a dancer enjoying herself in space, and exploring the sensuality of her body.

And perhaps there is another thought here. When we are unable to stereotype people, when we strip away the preconceptions of youth or age or colour or gender or weight, then a glorious individual emerges from that freedom. Trisha Brown Dance Company continues at Premiere Dance Theatre until Saturday.

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