A Trisha Brown masterpiece, 'reset' on an inclusive troupe
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A Trisha Brown masterpiece, 'reset' on an inclusive troupe
In an image provided by Camilla Greenwell, a Candoco performance of“Set and Reset/Reset,” at the Tate Modern in London in March 2022. Candoco, a British dance company that has disabled and non-disabled dancers, is to make its New York City debut with this piece. Camilla Greenwell via The New York Times

by Lauren Wingenroth

NEW YORK, NY.- Trisha Brown’s “Set and Reset,” one of postmodern dance's most treasured and durable works, thrillingly excavates the tension between freedom and form, spontaneity and detail.

Its five central principles, which include a direction to “act on instinct,” have been interpreted and reinterpreted by different dancers with different instincts, since its premiere, in 1983, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

This weekend, a reconstruction of the dance, “Set and Reset/Reset,” comes to the Brooklyn Academy when the London-based Candoco Dance Company makes its New York debut. Candoco, founded in 1991, is an inclusive, or integrated, troupe, with a mix of disabled and non-disabled dancers — one of the oldest and most acclaimed of such companies. (Axis Dance Company in the Bay Area is perhaps the best known integrated company in the United States.)

Candoco’s reconstruction of “Set and Reset,” with movement that is meticulously loyal to the original in its quality and architecture but also tailor-made for its dancers, heightens many of the work’s preoccupations: inviting the audience’s gaze and hiding from it, finding mischievousness within rigidity, balancing simplicity and intricacy.

Brown’s dancers always seem to be falling through space in “Set and Reset,” but some of the Candoco performers have distinct relationships to weight and gravity: Joel Brown, who dances with a wheelchair, can tip and swing; Marketa Stranska, who dances with crutches, has extra leverage and extension, which she uses to propel herself, or lean into precarious places.

“Set and Reset/Reset” wasn’t conceived as a project that would open up Brown’s work to disabled dancers. It was designed by a former Trisha Brown Dance Company member, Lance Gries, at P.A.R.T.S., a Belgian contemporary dance school, in the late 1990s as a way to let students experience a masterwork from the inside out. That is, students learned the “Set and Reset” choreography but also learned how it was made by remaking it themselves — they “reset” it with movement they created alongside Brown’s. Since then, other educational institutions have done their own “resets,” including recently at the Juilliard School’s annual Spring Dances.

In 2011, when Candoco first danced the piece, the idea of an inclusive company performing such a canonical work “was considered a radical proposition,” said Charlotte Darbyshire, the company’s artistic director. Also radical: re-imagining Robert Rauschenberg’s designs. Candoco’s version has costumes by Celeste Dandeker-Arnold and sets by David Lock, each inspired by Rauschenberg, along with Laurie Anderson’s original score.

In the 11 years that Candoco has performed the work, there have been several distinct iterations. That is because when dancers leave the company, others do not simply take over their roles. Instead, they start from the beginning with an exploratory and improvisation-based process, generating movement that is tethered to the original choreography yet particular to each dancer’s body and impulses.

The version that New York audiences will see at the Brooklyn Academy, and that recently had a run at the Tate Modern in London, had a longer incubation period than is typical because of the pandemic. (The Brooklyn performances were first scheduled for 2020, as part of a celebration of the Trisha Brown Dance Company’s 50th anniversary.)

Abigail Yager, the former Trisha Brown Dance Company member who directed the piece, said that her process is like teaching dancers the recipe for the piece and then seeing what comes out of the oven. She and her co-director, Jamie Scott, taught the phrase material that makes up the fabric of “Set and Reset.” Dancers then improvised with the guidance of Brown’s five principles for the piece: Keep it simple, act on instinct, stay on the edge, work with visibility and invisibility, and get in line.

Because Brown and her dancers developed the movement through improvisation before setting it, Candoco’s approach to “Set and Reset” honors the spirit of the original work more than a traditional staging would. (There, the dancers would learn the choreography as near as possible to how it was originally performed.)

But the relationship between that movement and what Candoco performs is ever-shifting, and varies by the dancer. For Stranska, translating the piece often required her to choose whether to use her crutches to perform choreography meant for the legs or for the arms. She discovered she could be guided by how the original dancer’s torso was moving, and then let her limbs fall into place naturally.

Stranska, who until “Set and Reset/Reset” had only danced in her own work or work made for her, says it has been an education. “I’ve learned that I am able to enter someone else’s choreography,” she said. “I’m allowed to have my own translation, which I wasn’t sure about at the beginning.”

Candoco dancer Ihsaan de Banya said learning “Set and Reset” felt like detective work, decoding the movement to find its essential qualities. “It fills you up from the inside out,” he said, “rather than feeling like you’re wearing someone else’s clothes.”

While Yager said she used to think of the process of reconstruction as trying to bring dancers as close as possible to the Platonic ideal of the piece, she has learned that “the ideal doesn’t exist — you’re always approaching, never arriving.” Her work on “Set and Reset/Reset” has influenced how she looks at the more conventional interpretations of Brown’s dances that she stages. “If we hold ourselves to something too narrow, there’s no life in it,” she said. “If we give some freedom, it’s actually a backdoor to finding the specificity of the detail.”

What new richness or complexity might we see in restagings of other classic dances if there were more explicit freedom in the interpretation? This question is particularly pertinent for a company like Candoco. But Darbyshire said that mounting existing works by artists who are not disabled can be fraught. “On the one hand, I feel like this is a time to not be recreating seminal works,” she said. “This is the time to support disabled makers and new artistic voices.” (Most of the company’s commissioned works are by artists who are not disabled, including the one that shares the program at the Brooklyn Academy: “Last Shelter,” by New York choreographer Jeanine Durning.)

Still, Darbyshire believes that the process “Set and Reset/Reset” has pioneered “is actually a best practice for all of us,” she said. “We shouldn’t be making assumptions when we work with anyone, disabled or not. There ought to be space for each of us to bring our own lived experience to any collaboration. When there’s space given to that, something more is possible.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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