As Trisha Brown’s Present Tense begins, Neal Beasley is alone onstage before a backdrop of interlocking colored shapes. To the sounds of John Cage’s prepared piano he leans on the air and twists his upper body against his lower so that it unfurls as fast as a spun-around swing. How does he move so swiftly with that jaw-dropping, low-key intensity? He folds himself down toward the ground or takes flight with equal effortlessness, shifting from shape to shape with no apparent need for transition. And, like the eight other dancers in the Trisha Brown Dance Company, whose style emphasizes momentum more than muscle, Beasley dances without show-off spin. At 22, he’s the group’s youngest member, having been swept into the company right out of New York University.
Recognized last year with a Princess Grace Fellowship, Beasley is lithe and of modest height, with wavy reddish hair and a face that animates with the intensity of his thinking. He was handed a plum gig last fall—teaching and directing rehearsals for the second cast for Brown’s premiere of O Zlozony/O Composite at the Paris Opéra Ballet (see cover story, April). “I was swimming around in all my favorite things,” says Beasley, whose command of French is nearly native. “We were working as peers,” he says of the premiere danseurs and étoiles. Beasley’s mission was to give them the keys to unlock Brown’s vocabulary and performing style.
After being born with two club feet and spending the first year of his life in casts to his knees, Beasley took his first jazz class at age 11. In his family’s home near Jackson, Mississippi, he had spent so many hours mimicking videos of The Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker and Janet Jackson that the teacher was astonished he’d never formally trained. “When I found my first dance class it was as if suddenly I was granted permission to fall in love with what I already loved,” he says.
Later he attended both the Idyllwild Arts Academy and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts on full scholarship. His teachers at Idyllwild “really got you to throw yourself way beyond your limits” in ballet, modern, and jazz classes with Horton, Cole, and Dunham influences. At NYU Beasley worked with German choreographer Johannes Wieland, then a grad student, and in pieces by Nacho Duato, Robert Battle, Nicolo Fonte, and faculty member Gus Solomons. In his final year Diane Madden of the TBDC taught Brown’s Foray Forêt.
When casting, Madden says: “I picked him out because his take on the movement was unembellished.” He worked in a committed, focused way. Beasley gave himself to the process: “I have lots of jazz in my background, where there’s this intentional use of effort, and Trisha’s work is about unearthing and unraveling all of that.”
As luck would have it, right after graduation, the TBDC was looking for a male dancer. Beasley participated in a five-week workshop/audition where, says Madden,“He went way beyond anyone else. He’s an animal dancer when it comes to timing, and he’s crystal clear.”
Having to learn the repertory quickly, Beasley made his company debut in France in November 2003. Because of other company members’ injuries he stepped into several roles on short notice and ended up dancing in every piece on the touring program. The intensity hasn’t let up since, with touring and being part of the “building process” on two new works: O Composite, and Brown’s collaborative work using motion capture technology, how long does an object linger on the edge of the volume…
Asked about Beasley, Brown says he “is brilliant as a dancer and has the gut structure for doing things of a giant.” She values his ability to decipher the subtleties of her movement and to meet the creative challenges she poses. For his part Beasley has the deepest respect for his company colleagues and for Brown herself. “I don’t think anyone does what Trisha does. I’m continually inspired by working with her. She’ll stand up and do something I’ve never seen before and I think, ‘You’re pushing 70 and you’re still blowing my mind with what your body does!’ ”
With a simmering curiosity about where dance is heading and what his own choreographic voice might be, Beasley sees lots of performances. He choreographed at Idyllwild and made two collaborations with fellow NYU undergrad Beth Gill. Last fall the pair were invited to participate in the NY Improvisation Festival but the dates fell in the middle of the Paris Opéra project. Beasley’s solution was to borrow a red tutu from star Aurélie Dupont and send Gill a video to play during the performance. In it he’s improvising in Dupont’s tutu before a window with a view of the Eiffel Tower. “Sometimes,” he says, “You just have to jump.”
Lisa Kraus, a former TBDC dancer, teaches at Swarthmore College and writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer.