Postmodern choreographer Trisha Brown is known for showing her work in unconventional spaces, and the 1991 premiere of Astral Converted was no exception. The piece, which boasted an original score by John Cage and visual and costume designs by Robert Rauschenberg, took place on the stairway in front of the National Gallery in Washington. Pedestrians on the National Mall, cars, and airplanes passing overhead were absorbed into the performance.
The Trisha Brown Dance Company’s 2012 revival of Astral Converted — not seen anywhere for some 18 years — took place in an entirely different setting: the Park Avenue Armory in New York. The cavernous drill hall was kept mostly dark for the occasion, with only a few spotlights piercing the shadows. The everyday might have been removed from these performances, but Astral Converted, easily one of the most exciting dances shown in the city this year, has a breathtaking life of its own.
It begins in an orderly, conventional fashion. Eight of the cast’s nine dancers, dressed in silver costumes, sit on the floor in two lines and shift poses in unison with those near them. Soon, they rise and the lines begin to fragment, the dancers crawling, walking, or leaping alone or in groups, the patterns often intertwining. Cage’s score, for eight brass and woodwind instruments, is dreamlike. The set’s eight metal towers, assembled by Rauschenberg from automotive parts, resemble playground equipment when the dancing is exuberant; during more somber passages, they form a kind of cage.
Although the dancers appear mostly to ignore each other, they frequently ply each other’s bodies or tip one another back and forth like pendulums. Sometimes they meet as though by chance. A man and woman enter carrying large brooms and trace lines and circles as they sweep; the brooms gently touch the feet, heads, and behinds of two other dancers who are tumbling in unison. (Nicholas Strafaccia, meanwhile, dances alone around them, circling the space in leaps as if addressing each of the metal columns.) Other interactions are more tense. Jamie Cunningham, the ensemble’s strongest performer, all at once goes limp and allows a man to drag her across the floor by her arm. Suddenly, another man takes hold of her leg, and the force produced unceremoniously throws her upward before she lands gracefully in arabesque.
The quietest collisions reverberate the most, as when two dancers lying parallel on the floor roll toward each other and onto Patrick Ferreri’s feet, trapping him in place. The act seems like an intrusion, yet he pays them no heed.
Most impressive, however, are Brown’s transitions, which are countless. Any dancers not performing stand at the edges of the performance space, then leap in dispassionately, mirroring others’ steps, and the exits are similarly blunt: A trio forms from a quartet, or a duet becomes a solo. The dance’s structure gives it an energy that ebbs and flows. One isn’t much interested in dissecting Astral Converted, in analyzing or explaining its ingredients. It’s thrilling just to watch, and find out what will happen next.