Trisha Brown Dance Company revives the dance Astral Converted at the Park Avenue Armory
For the revival of Astral Converted, three inside players—Diane Madden, Aaron Parsekian and Tamara Riewe—talk about the revolutionary dance, which pairs Trisha Brown's choreography with Robert Rauschenberg's visual design
Wed Jun 20 2012
Photograph: Stephanie Berger
The Trisha Brown Dance Company revives Astral Converted, featuring choreography by Trisha Brown and sets and costumes by Robert Rauschenberg, at the massive Park Avenue Armory. In anticipation, three inside players—Diane Madden, Aaron Parsekian and Tamara Riewe—talk about the revolutionary dance in which Rauschenberg's towers control the lighting and his silver costumes turn the dancers into superheros. The River to River Festival is hosting open rehearsals at Governors Island.
It isn’t every dance that can stand up to the Park Avenue Armory’s Drill Hall—at 55,000 square feet, the space redefines spectacular—but it’s no surprise that the revolutionary Trisha Brown has something up her sleeve. Brown collaborated with Robert Rauschenberg in 1989 to create Astral Converted. The set was comprised of eight metal towers containing car batteries, headlights and stereo systems; embedded sensors triggered the lights and sound in response to the dancers’ movements. Two years later, Brown expanded the piece, renaming it Astral Converted. Rehearsal director Diane Madden has restaged the work for performances at the Armory beginning July 10. In advance of its unveiling, the River to River Festival is hosting the Trisha Brown Dance Company in a series of open rehearsals. Here, three inside players weigh in on bringing the dance back to life.
Tamara Riewe, company member
TONY: From your point of view, what has been the process of reviving Astral Converted?
Tamara Riewe: It was one of the first pieces I started learning when I got into the company about six years ago. We began to bring it back into the repertory, and we got so far as learning a lot of the basic phrase material. Then I think because of the sheer cost of the equipment, it was cancelled from touring. So this experience has been really fulfilling, because I’m able to put together all of these pieces that have resided in my body for so long. It’s the ability to go in and see how they fit.
TONY: So you still have that muscle memory from six years ago?
Tamara Riewe: Yeah. It’s actually incredible. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that if, when we first started with Di [Diane Madden], you’d set me free and I’d continue where she left off. It’s like learning a song, or relearning a song that someone hummed to you in childhood enough that the rhythm is second nature.
TONY: How would you describe the movement quality?
Tamara Riewe: It’s so interesting. This is from Trisha’s Valiant cycle [Brown’s series of works that test physical limits]. With the costumes—the silver unitards—a lot of times, if there’s any stillness or more of a presentational pose in the piece, you just think: the Avengers. It’s an immediate superhero reference. And it feels like that in the body, too. It’s got this bravado. It’s heroic. It’s like taking big gulps of air and flying with it. But the details are still there because of the angles. We’ve been working on the “Brooms” phrase: You’re sliding your body into grand arcs on the floor, but every time you come to a stillness, you’re at a precise angle, which is quite hard. You’re dealing with a unison partner. It’s almost like mapping each other’s bodies and getting a sense of, Okay, this is what it feels like to be not completely 90 degrees, but slightly more open. It’s a tipping sensation. As for the details, I would also include rhythm. One of the things I love about this work is that the unison is so strong, but we don’t count, and we don’t even watch each other that much. You are paying attention, but there’s a lot more feeling of each other—and simultaneously the feeling of a phrase that you drilled a certain way. So there’s a breathing. I’m always singing songs to myself.
TONY: Do you rehearse with any music?
Tamara Riewe: No. And I actually always warm up to music, because I know I’m about to go in for six hours of silence.
TONY: In terms of unison and not counting, are you referring specifically to this piece or in Trisha’s work in general?
Tamara Riewe: I would say in general. Foray [Forêt] is really similar, too, but in this piece I feel it the most, because we’re in quartets and duets more often than in other pieces.
TONY: Do you interact with the towers?
Tamara Riewe: I will. I haven’t yet. Apparently, I’ll be pushing or pulling them into place—hopefully in a way that won’t make me look completely like I’m a tech person.
TONY: For this revival, the company is working with Diane and choreographic assistant Carolyn Lucas. What do they each bring to the process?
Tamara Riewe: It’s totally different. Diane is very articulate, and the movement resides in her body. She’s had the fortune of being able to keep dancing, so we’ll literally learn it from [watching] her. We have the video to go back to if there’s something she feels she can’t do full out. But I would say 99.5 percent of the time, she’s able to do it in a way that is clear and articulate. It’s incredible. She’s also able to translate what she’s doing—what her own process is—and the tasks that she’s accomplishing into words. I’m visual and verbal, and she links those two in a way that’s perfect for me.
TONY: What about Carolyn?
Tamara Riewe: She is a little bit more nebulous. She has an incredible eye for detail. She’s been dancing more and more over the past couple years; it’s been great, because even though she has disclaimers like, “I know I can’t do this,” she actually is so clear on a smaller scale. She’s not able to pick it up and replicate what we’re seeing her do on video 30 years ago, but she’s absolutely able to give you the rhythm and the pattern of events in her body, which is helpful. She definitely prefers to show or to point to the video as opposed to articulating something. But it works. I think that [Diane and Carolyn] are incredible. They are like the two different spices on the rack that keep things flavored.
Aaron Parsekian, set restorer
TONY: What was the state of Rauschenberg’s towers?
Aaron Parsekian: They’d been in storage in New Jersey for quite a while, although they were used in 2006. Essentially, they haven’t worked to their full capacity in probably 15 or 20 years. So even when the company was using them, they were not completely functional.
TONY: Why hadn’t they worked to their full capacity?
Aaron Parsekian:It’s the big problem with electronic art pieces. Parts wear out. They’ve been on tour. It’s like owning an old car. I had to find a lot of parts—some that barely exist anymore. I went to school for lighting design, but I also restore old radios as a hobby, so this was something I was comfortable doing.
TONY: How do the towers work?
Aaron Parsekian:In the piece, there are 50 car headlights, and they’re pointed at opposing towers; and on each tower, there are a bunch of light sensors—similar to the sensors that are in a night-light in your house. And as the dancers walk between the towers, their movement basically trips these sensors and makes different car headlights go on and off. So what you get is a very random light-flashing that is synchronized to people’s movement between the towers. And one thing that Rauschenberg stressed in a lot of his electronic art pieces was that things were wireless. So there are no wires between the towers, which adds to their mystique. And they’re also moved around by the dancers a few times.
TONY: What did you do to bring them back?
Aaron Parsekian: The towers toured for a while and became a little dilapidated. They’re supposed to look like spaceships, and they lost that because they were duct-taped together. I think they look like satellites, honestly. And they’re very mysterious during the piece, because the lights are dim, and they’re sort of hiding in the shadows untethered from each other. The Armory is the perfect space for the piece, because it’s so open—I guess it goes back to me feeling that they’re almost like satellites or spaceships: They’re lost in this giant world by themselves. They all have tape decks in them, and we have the original tapes that went into each tower, but we installed a wireless audio system. I left the tape decks there so they still have that ’80s look, but they were eating the original tapes. [Laughs] Such is the way that things go at Trisha Brown.
TONY: Did you have to track down headlights?
Aaron Parsekian:It was interesting: Rauschenberg had two engineers who defected from Bell Labs. And Bell Labs was the place to be in terms of high-tech engineering, so the best electronic engineers were there. He got interested in doing electronic and lighting sculptures. They were technically gifted people, and it shows in what they used on the towers, but a lot of these parts are 30, 40 years old, and they’re hard to come by now. I didn’t want to change anything or make anything different. Everything that I used was exactly what was used 20 years ago, but it was very difficult to find some of that. Even down to the exact car headlights that were used on the original. They were standard back then, but now they’re difficult to find.
TONY: How did you find them?
Aaron Parsekian: A lot of googling. Thank God for the Internet. I don’t know where I’d be without it.
TONY: Did you find anything on eBay?
Aaron Parsekian: Yeah. There was one tape deck that was missing. I wonder if someone took it out and put it in their car. But it was the most impossible tape deck to find in the world. It was a lot of detective work. I didn’t want to stray from any of the components that had been used in the original. I made that choice to be meticulous. I treat it like a museum piece. And maybe ten years from now, it will be in a museum.
Diane Madden, rehearsal director
TONY: What is your history with this dance?
Diane Madden: I always feel that every piece Trisha makes is built from the work that was done in previous pieces. Astral Converted [AC1] followed Newark [(Niweweorce), from 1987], and between AC1 and AC2 [Astral Converted] was Foray Forêt (1990). It’s interesting how things overlap; there’s actually some Foray material in AC2. AC2 is a 30-minute piece that had inserts put into it to make it a 50-minute piece. I think AC1 took all the Newark ideas and expanded them.
TONY: What were the Newark ideas?
Diane Madden: Oftentimes, Trisha will have an anchor structure, and in Newark it’s a male duet. In AC1, there’s actually something that refers back to Glacial Decoy (1979), which is the idea of a delivery system: lines [of dancers] that move across the space. That’s her anchor. And then duets and trios will bubble up out of that. Another thing is that at the end of Newark there is very interdependent partnering [within a] virtuosic quartet; at the end of AC2, there is a sextet, and a similar approach that Trisha took in terms of interspersing weight-bearing [movement] material with phrase material, and layering double duets and triple duets. She plays with exchanging partners and juxtaposing material. Partnering is a big component of AC2, and personally, it’s one of the things that I enjoyed the most as a dancer. In terms of our partnering abilities, Trisha was asking us to do things, and we were just like, “Really?” And then we would do them! [Laughs] If she wasn’t really getting what she wanted, she would say, “Okay, never mind. I’ll give up on that.” As soon as she did, we would be like, “No, no, no—we can do it!” She would just get it out of us. In reviving [AC2] and working from the video, it’s amazing [to see] how much repetition and trial and error [was involved]. It paid off, and we ended up creating these forms that are completely dependent on a great degree of specificity and delicacy and sensitivity, which is surprising, because they’re just so big. In order to achieve all of that, you really need to be tuned in. I guess it’s not so surprising. There’s actually a lot of finesse involved. The [silver] costumes give it a superhero effect, but the doing of it is incredibly delicate.
TONY: How does the set work in the dance?
Diane Madden: The towers have light sensors, so when a beam of light shines into the sensor or is broken by something passing in front of the light source—like a dancer—it flips a switch and turns the lights on or off. Originally [in AC2] it was also going to trigger the sound, but then Trisha decided to work with John Cage’s Eight, and the indeterminacy [already] in it was enough. [The music for AC1 was by Richard Landry.] There’s a lot of attention being paid to sound at the Armory, because the acoustics there are not easy. The Armory has an in-house acoustician, so we’re working to figure out the best possible way to stick with the original idea that the towers provide all the light and all the sound.
TONY: What do you remember about Rauschenberg and Brown working together?
Diane Madden: [Visual artist and Brown’s partner] Burt Barr made a film, Aeros. It’s a beautiful piece, and he also does a really good job of capturing the collaborative process and all the different ways that Trisha and Bob would be together—they’re buddies. You can feel the love and support, the comfort and the physical affection; at the same time, there’s a part where they’re like, “No, no, no,” and they’re fighting and getting annoyed with each other. It’s all in there. It wasn’t always smooth. I think because they were so intimate in their creative process, there would be hang-ups and struggles.
TONY: What was it like to perform it?
Diane Madden: Challenging and fun. One of the additions in AC2 is that the dancers move the towers, and I was happily one of those who got to do that. I really loved interacting with a tower and getting involved in that choreography—perfecting how to push it. All of that stuff is similar to another section, “Brooms,” in which dancers push brooms using movement made in relationship to a floor phrase. It was the same kind of thing: You get into the finer points like: What’s the most efficient way to push a broom? AC2 is long. In terms of my experience performing it, you definitely knew that when it started, you were going to be in it for awhile. It really felt like you were going to go on a trip. You had to sort of pack your bags and get ready.
TONY: Are you onstage the whole time?
Diane Madden: There is definitely offstage time, but not a lot. The stage is going to be exposed. That’s another big element we’re trying to figure out. When we did AC2 on the steps of the National Gallery in D.C., the stage was raised; we would go down off the stage, walk behind it and come back on—so we would essentially disappear. We’re not going to have that at the Armory. We’ll figure that out technically and also behaviorally. We don’t want carpet running from the dressing room to the stage; we want the stage to be like an island, really clear and floating in this Armory space.
TONY: What are you relying on to restage this?
Diane Madden: Videos. Carolyn Lucas’s memory. My memory. [Former dancer] Lance Gries taught some of the big men’s phrases. A lot of the material is still in my body. It’s rough in my body, but it’s always easier for a dancer to learn from a three-dimensional body, even if it’s just a sketch. If it’s important [for the dancers] to see the evolution of an idea, I’ll show them how something started—especially if it’s not something that I can demonstrate. Oftentimes, it has to do with risk: This is the risk that delivered that movement. The dancers have to really go for it and throw themselves into it—sometimes literally. If you just go for control, you miss the texture and the guts.
TONY: There is a floor phrase in the work that can be seen from above. What is the background of that material?
Diane Madden: This was Trisha’s response to the poor dancers that sit in the nosebleed seats of the theater.
TONY: Do you mean the dancers who have come to see the show?
Diane Madden: Well she was figuring that there would be dancers up there who couldn’t afford closer seats. She wanted to make a dance where the body is primarily lying on the floor so the viewer, instead of looking at the tops of dancers’ heads, got to see the whole body. She had the idea of the dancer on the floor and the standing dancer, and choreography that related between the two of them. It was a great idea, and then we developed this whole movement vocabulary. Trisha starts off with an idea and explores it, and then she starts to get a little bit bored by it or she feels the confines of it, and she pushes on it and new things come out. Here, the new thing was this really beautiful vocabulary where the dancers’ bodies are hovering, sort of midrange, over the floor. So they’re not really on their feet, but they’re also not lying down or on their hands and knees. They’re not in all the typical in-between places, but they’re traveling in between those more obvious support structures, so there’s a buoyant quality that we developed. It’s beautiful, and it’s hard. [Laughs]
TONY: Was this a different way for Trisha to consider gravity?
Diane Madden: I think that was something she was really going after headlong in Newark. The men’s duet in Newark was very straightforward: The motivating force was a full-on succumbing to gravity. I do see that taken into a quartet that is in AC2 and [was not in] AC1, which is quite beautiful. It’s similarly straightforward: Here’s a shape, you fall like a tree, a partner deals with you. It’s much less articulated. It was me and three of the guy dancers who made it, and I just had a blast.
Trisha Brown Dance Company performs Astral Converted at the Park Avenue Armory July 10–14. The River to River Festival hosts “Astral Converted in Process” June 23, 24 and 30 and July 1.
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