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Robert Rauschenberg worked with dancers? So thought this writer upon learning that the artist designed the set and costumes for Trisha Brown’s 1979 piece Glacial Decoy, the first dance in the three-part program for Stephen Petronio Company’s current season at the Joyce Theater.
Upon seeing the 20-minute piece, however, Rauschenberg’s involvement began to make sense. His set design conveys a deep sense of humanity, unsurprising coming from the artist who famously said, “Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in that gap between the two).” The backdrop consists of four blank floor-to-ceiling canvases. Throughout the performance, black-and-white photographs are projected onto the panels and shift from left to right, “reading like a book,” as Stephen Petronio told me. Rauschenberg shot images of daily life: a dog, a mailbox, a plant, the ocean, a boxcar. They evoke a common, collective experience, and there’s something oddly soothing and hypnotic about how they soundlessly glide across the stage (no music accompanies the dance). While some of the photographs seem related, such as three images of different sections of the same boxcar, they don’t cohere into any singular narrative. The story linking them is unclear, an enigma the viewer can either attempt to unravel or just ignore, appreciating each image as it appears.
The dance itself is similarly ambiguous. Without music, only the dancers’ footfalls provide sound. Brown choreographed many works without musical accompaniment, of which Glacial Decoy was one of the last. Five women in long, filmy white gowns move across the stage, never touching. In the original production, the women wore different costumes, which involved leggings and patchwork. The gowns seem more appropriate — ethereal and alluring in their own way as they hint at the skin and body underneath without ever revealing them. Brown and Rauschenberg, Petronio said, both played with invisibility and the erasure of movements, and the costumes echo that interest. While the dancers are sometimes center stage, they also dance to the side, half-obscured by the curtains. This suggests that the piece continues offstage, like a painting that appears to stretch beyond its frame.
Petronio said that “perversely postmodern” sensibilities united Brown and Rauschenberg, who collaborated on several pieces in addition to Glacial Decoy. He noted how quickly the dancers transition from romantic, virtuosic movements to more minimalist, casual ones. “Both of them thought the everyday ordinary had a place of equal import in the flow of information,” he explained. “I think that’s the relationship between the movement and the visuals.” Notably, Brown is also a visual artist, represented in New York by the gallery Sikkema Jenkins & Co. Her drawings, too, convey ambiguous movement in black and white. As in Glacial Decoy, a definite, more identifiable gesture seems just beyond reach.
Glacial Decoy holds special significance for Petronio, who joined Brown’s company in 1979, the year it premiered, as the first male. Though enamored with Glacial Decoy, the dance’s call for an entirely female cast excluded him from participation. In the performance at the Joyce, he reinterprets the piece for a contemporary audience with his own dancers (still all women) whose traits he believes mirror those of Brown’s first cast. The mysteries that they raise alongside Rauschenberg’s images confound and enchant the viewer, haunting memory long after the performance ends.