Thursday, November 30, 2017

Reflecting on Brian Brooks’ Reflections

Brian Brooks and Wendy Whalen (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

Last night in Herbst Theatre, choreographer Brian Brooks returned to San Francisco Performances, again with with dancer Wendy Whelan, to give the first of two performances of his one-hour composition Some of a Thousand Words. (The second performance will take place tonight, again at 7:30 p.m.) The entire stage was exposed and empty, except for a rectangle of what may best be described as wallpaper hanging at the back. Also, at the very rear of the stage area, music stands had been set up for the members of the Brooklyn Rider string quartet, violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords, and cellist Michael Nicolas.

Some of a Thousand Words was structured in four movements followed by a coda. That coda had the title “First Fall;” and it was the duet, set to Philip Glass’ third (“Mishima”) string quartet, that was included in the program when Whelan and Brooks gave their first SFP recital in 2015. The heart of the full composition was its third movement, for which Jacobsen wrote “BTT” and led the Brooklyn Rider performance. (Gandelsman was first violin for the rest of the evening.) Each of the other four movements was structured around the work of the different composer. The first movement was set to “Arches,” a cello solo by Jacob Cooper. This was followed by Tyondai Braxton’s “ArpRec1,” which was played by Brooklyn Rider without either dancer appearing. The fourth movement set the last two of the three sections of John Luther Adams’ The Wind in High Places, “Maclaren Summit” and “Looking Towards Hope.”

Brooks is an abstractionist with a keen eye for detail, and those details permeated his duo work with Whelan throughout the evening. The evening began with the two of them executing a series of motions that combined the casual with the stylized. Both of them were staring intently out into the audience, keeping their gaze fixed for much of the first movement. It would not have taken long for those familiar with Jerome Robbins’ “Afternoon of a Faun” to realize that the dancers were not staring into empty space (or, for that matter, at the audience). Rather they were looking into a large mirror on the wall of the studio in which this choreography was constructed.

On my way back from the concert, I began to reflect (word chosen deliberately) on how much of Brooks’ choreography seemed to be derived from the idea of reflection and the much broader construct of symmetry. Those who think that symmetry is a relatively simple concept would do well to appreciate that the mathematician Hermann Weyl wrote an entire book on the topic, classifying a rich typology of symmetries on the basis of their respective underlying constructs based on abstract algebra. Many of those constructs were on display, not only in the choreography but also in the repeated design and design elements of that wallpaper. I would therefore venture to guess that the overall scope of Some of a Thousand Words involved a “tour” of many of those different instances of symmetry, all realized in terms of the relations between the two dancers.

However abstract this all may sound, there was nothing mechanical about how the dancers realized the choreography. The narrative may not have had any of those personality types that we associate with “story” ballets; but, if the choreography was “about” anything, it was about the different ways in which two individuals can relate to one another. That goal was realized strictly through movement, however, since facial expressions never intruded upon the unfolding of Brooks’ language of patterns.

For that matter, the music also refrained from intrusion. Cooper’s piece was perfect for laying the groundwork, since the cellist gradually unfolded the exploration of upper harmonics based on a single fundamental drone as Whelan and Brooks established their initial relationship with their “virtual mirror.” It would probably also be fair to say that, as the choreographic structures began to explore less familiar varieties of symmetry, the music ventured into more elaborate relationships between pitch classes and rhythms. Indeed, to the extent that the perspectives on symmetry were at their richest in the third movement, I would not be surprised if Jacobsen developed his score in conjunction with Brooks’ evolution of his choreography.

Nevertheless, there were times when I realized that taking all of this in was more demanding that I had anticipated. Indeed, I had to content with the fact that I often wanted to shift my attention to the music, simply because both the scores and their respective interpretations were so alluring. I then realized that any such shift of attention might take me away from the many fascinating details in Brooks’ choreography. The fact is that I really wanted to get better acquainted with both the choreography and the music, and it has been quite some time since I came out of a dance concert feeling that way.

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