Ego and art have always been bedfellows, whatever the medium of expression. And Trisha Brown is the acknowledged (and self-acknowledged) master of her own expressionistic realm: postmodern dance with a formalist bent. She makes no bones about it. "It's lonely here at the top," Brown says bluntly by phone from New York during a break in rehearsal for the upcoming Houston performance by her Trisha Brown Company. "Choreography is a difficult topic, and there aren't many who can speak to it at this level. When one works with others, there's always a zone of friction -- my work versus yours -- and that kind of arbitration is the most interesting conversation I have."
The sixtysomething dancer/choreographer is addressing the subject of collaboration, specifically her numerous aesthetic liaisons with Texas native Robert Rauschenberg, one of the art world's most eager (and clever) collaborationists, a point underscored by the current exhibit "Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective." The Brown ensemble's Houston show achieves artistic fusion on two levels: It's in conjunction with the local run of "A Retrospective" and it includes two of Brown and Rauschenberg's finest hours as dance partners, if you will -- Set and Reset (1983) and If you couldn't see me (1994).
In a melodious voice reminiscent of a rain-forest bird, Brown takes us on a guided tour of the program. She begins, as does the show, with Set and Reset, previously performed here by the TBC in 1990. Featuring "visual presentation" by Rauschenberg and music by Laurie Anderson, Reset is an unchanging exploration of the inevitability of change. "It has an overlay of serendipity and improvisation," says Brown. "It's a fixed piece, but it has that look. It's full of humor and sabotage and high jinks and quicksilver partnerings. It's the sweetheart of all audiences."
The show's middle segment, If you couldn't see me, has also fast become an audience favorite, but it breeds a more complex affection -- more like the deep pitches and rolls of marriage than the easy swells of romance. A Houston premiere, it's Brown's first creation for a solo dancer since the late '70s, and one of her most striking ever. Brown's the lone performer; she wears a backless, high-hemmed white gown designed by Rauschenberg and moves to one of his compositions. As the work's title suggests, she faces stage rear; the audience never views her face. "It's a challenge, as all my communication systems are on the front part of my body," she says. "It's a way of looking at the dancing figure in a new way, with the back as a neutral surface. It's quite limiting, and I do love limitation.
"Robert had been playing on his new [keyboard], and he envisioned me with my back to him. I'd been reading critical essays about how women are depicted on the stage, in film, etc. And I was also thinking about narcissism. It comes up, because I have all of these beautiful dancers to work with."
Most of Brown's topflight troupers take the stage for the finale, Twelve Ton Rose (1996), another local premiere. It's a tricky bit of minimalism brimming with cinematic devices and what Brown calls "sleight of body," set to music by Anton Webern and based on that composer's harmonic incorporation of Schoenberg's invention: the 12-tone row. "I was working with magic on that piece -- sweeping dancers through the space, using the notion of the dissolve, as in film," says Brown. "The idea is to get the audience to ask, 'How did they do that?' "
Stupefying audiences -- in a good way -- has been Brown's mission throughout her 30-plus-year career, which began in the '60s with the Judson Dance Theatre (co-founders: Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, John Cage). Prepare for artistic stupefaction; it's par for the course from this "intrepid explorer in the field" -- a self-description that, in typical Brownian style, is grand but not without grounds.