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Some bewilderment greets new Trisha Brown dances

Trisha Brown has changed her body language again. One thing that makes this choreographer so important is how intently she explores her craft. Over the years, her company has gone through at least three or four ``looks,'' all quite different but preserving resonances of what went before. In ``Newark,'' first seen here on opening night of the company's City Center season, seven dancers in matte gray leotards pitch and pivot through a changing but featureless landscape consisting of Donald Judd's backdrops in strongly lit solid colors.

From time to time, loud noises (by Peter Zummo) are heard, like buzzers that are stuck, that make you want to scream, and that bore their way into your consciousness till they stop with another jolt. Gone are the crumpled, synthetic objects that littered Brown's work of last year, ``Lateral Pass,'' with its rabble of inhabitants scuffing and flinging their way through an environment they hoped to escape. In ``Newark'' the dancers fit themselves into whatever space is available - it gets bigger and smaller as the colored panels settle in behind them and swoop out. The changing scenic and aural weather doesn't affect their movement much, but they seem agreed that, since they have to be out in it, they might as well do what they have to do.

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Unlike Brown's choreography over the past several years, the movement in ``Newark'' is solid, angular. Bodies are kinked and cantilevered in structural forms, rather than loosely twisted or flung out from the joints. Frequently someone will wrench around into an impossible zigzag or fall over to the side, legs locked or hinged to impede resilience. It's like watching a group of one-legged acrobats. You admire what they can do at the same time you're wondering why they would pick such unsuitable work.

There seems to be a central duet in the piece, around which other dancers maneuver, but, at least in the beginning, two people do the same thing side by side rather than engage in a complementary dialogue. Lance Gries and Jeffrey Axelrod, who begin it, leave at some point and are replaced by Diane Madden and Lisa Schmidt, then by Gries and Irene Hultman. Each duo maintains the idea of tandem motion, and the movement patterns contain some of the same motifs. The dance itself is what endures, through successive generations of recycled dancers. After many mutations, there's a section of group tumbling - dancers climbing carefully over one another, again with sturdy torsos and deliberately bent limbs, as if they're determined to get through the routines without any show of curviness or flexibility. The dance ends with two couples doing tandem tumbling.

Things about this dance looked borrowed from the popular, artistic gymnastics of Pilobolus, and other things - especially the way the dancers work in isolation from one another but maintain a constant mutual awareness - reminded me of Merce Cunningham. But the movement kept Trisha Brown's individual stamp. Despite the mechanistic, monolithic body style, the phrasing stayed connected, musical, as if the dancers had discovered a new law of physics enabling them to move smoothly through brick walls. Though it doesn't have the usual violence and glamour of the genre, ``Newark'' seems to me a very urban dance. It advertises the bleak determination we'll need to survive the cities in the 1990s.

On the same program, Brown showed two movement sequences she created for the opera ``Carmen,'' directed by Lina Wertm"uller in Naples last winter.

First, dancers in Spanish costume moved with stately inexorability in a procession across the footlights - matadors and their women, arms lifted or haughtily elbowing out, and their steady progress cut into by sudden falls or lurching, swirling spins.

In another sequence a man eyed a woman as she strode near him. When she got close, he pressed one hand to her chest and bent her to the ground while she insistently maintained her walking rhythm and her basic body attitude. As the lights went out he hovered over her helpless form - a transformation in both their characters through almost no perceptible change in movement.

The opening night audience of chic-seeking patrons was bewildered by these numbers. After the first there was no applause at all, and after the second they laughed. Perhaps it didn't seem right to them that a postmodern dancer should be mixing up with bullfighting, fate, and the likes of Georges Bizet.

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Or perhaps the postmodern audience thinks it shouldn't connect the dance with the potent cultural images that often accompany it. When, on another program, Brown revived her 1973 ``Group Primary Accumulation,'' you could see the idea of movement-for-its-own-sake in its most austere and convincing form. In the context of Brown's current repertory this dance looked almost prehistoric, but it made perfect sense as a prelude to what she's doing now.

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