By the mid-'70s Trisha Brown had developed her own technical vocabulary based on a highly flexible, spatially complex use of the body. The only thing "everyday" about it was the relatively narrow range of dynamics within which the dancers performed. Brown formed her dance company and had pretty much left behind the startling pieces where she put pedestrianism into contention with unlikely sites and situations. In Floor of the Forest (1971), continuing at scheduled times three days a week in the ICA's gallery, people scramble through a grid strung with clothing, suspended above the ground. About 20 Boston dancers were recruited to do the piece in shifts of two. The pairs I saw diligently crawled into the arms of old T-shirts and hung there for a while, then hunted up new perches. They hid the awkwardness of the task rather than luxuriating in it.
The curiosity and conceptual imagination behind Brown's "equipment pieces" got absorbed into the dancers' bodies when translated into stage choreography. From the mid-'70s she created a company of extremely articulate dancers and a repertory in which theatrical elements like music or design served as the environments.
In the original performance of Forêt Foray (1990), an offstage band passes by outside the theater. At the ICA, the music was recorded. It approached very gradually from the left of the building, crossed in front of us, and moved away. The dancers favored straight paths and directional movement, but otherwise they paid no attention to the invisible march formation that was passing by. Opal Loop (1980) originated in a fog show by the sculptor Fujiko Nakaya. At the ICA, this complicated installation was omitted, and the dancers' windblown, misty shapes contrasted with the dramatic Boston harbor backdrop beyond the theater's window-wall. Brown's 2011 Les Yeux et l'âme had court-dance music from Jean-Philippe Rameau's opera Pygmalion. The company seemed livelier in this interesting series of lineups and duos, though nothing they did looked at all like Baroque dancing.
The postmodern dance revolution led, perhaps inevitably, back to recognizable dancing, but dancing with a lot more compositional leeway and an expanded pool of physical sources. Dancers now can toggle without missing a beat between traditional ballet and modern dance moves, acrobatics, hip-hop, runway strutting, or football maneuvers. Outside the ICA's conceptual atelier, two contemporary dance shows offered entirely different ideas of what to do in the theater.
Both pieces by Aszure Barton at the Tsai Performance Center (sponsored by the Celebrity Series) featured nine terrific dancers in precisely engineered ensemble work and individualistic solos, laid out in short, loosely connected vignettes. Everything was oriented to the audience, like a well-oiled Broadway show. Then, halfway through the second piece, Busk, when Emily Oldak took off her black hoodie and began a series of stretches and contortions in her underwear, I realized: it's no-frills Cirque du Soleil.
Barton doesn't acknowledge having had any new-circus training, but Tobin Del Cuore can do juggling and ride a unicycle, Oldak has appeared in a Cirque production, and all the dancers are experts in mime techniques. They can call up any trope of dance, ballet, hip-hop, or tumbling that's required. They can slide from classical extensions to rubbery falls to gestures of appeal or insult. Barton's company dances with humor and high energy, and a sense that they'd like to be your friend.