Review: Merce Cunningham Dance Company ~ theatre notes

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Review: Merce Cunningham Dance Company

Melbourne Festival #12

Programs A and B, Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Choreography by Merce Cunningham, musical direction by Takehisa Kasugi. Danced by Jonah Bokaer, Lisa Boudreau, Julie Cunningham, Brandon Callwes, Emma Desjardins, Halley Farmer, Jennifer Goggans, Daniel Madoff, Rashaun Mitchell, Koji Mizuta, Marcie Munnerlyn, Daniel Squire, Robert Swinston and Andrea Weber. State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre.

Program A: Suite For Five (1956), music by John Cage, costumes by Robert Rauschenberg, lighting by Beverly Emmons. eyeSpace (2006), music by Mikel Rouse, design by Daniel Arsham, lighting by Josh Johnson. Biped (1999), music by Gavin Bryars, design by Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser, costumes by Suzanne Gallo, lighting by Aaron Capp.

Program B: Views on Stage (2004), music by John Cage, design by Ernesto Neto, costumes by James Hall, lighting by Josh Johnson. Split Sides (2003), music by Radiohead and Sigur Rós, design by Robert Heishman and Catherine Yass, costumes by James Hall, lighting by James F. Ingalls.

It was a fitting ending to what has been a triumphantly successful Melbourne Festival. As Merce Cunningham emerged on stage last night at the end of Split Sides, a frail figure in his wheelchair, the entire State Theatre rose to its feet, whooping and clapping. It was a totally exhilarating moment: I think everyone there floated out on a cloud of high. I know I did.

I was standing as much out of admiration for this artist who, at 88, has never stopped thinking and wondering over more than half a century of work. Dammit, the man's an inspiration. And Cunningham's residency here was always the jewel in the crown of the 2007 festival. It was a chance to actually see for ourselves a revolutionary and seminal force in modern dance. A bit like going to see Rothko or Pollock at the art gallery, only with the artist himself still working on the painting. How cool is that?

Quite cool, as it turned out. I use the painting metaphor advisedly: I found it absolutely impossible to watch Program A without thinking about painting. De Kooning, Matisse, Gorky... and, insistently, the plastic arts of classical Greece, especially the pottery. And, as with painting, it is a challenge to write about anything as wordless as dance; I fear this review will simply be a long list of associations that floated up while I was watching, transfixed by the dynamic form that was unfolding before my eyes.

Perhaps it was only compensation for this wordlessness that an insistent subtext was the poetry of the New York School - poets like John Ashbery, Ted Berrigan, Kenneth Koch, even Frank O'Hara. I decided later that this association was a function of the rhythms Cunningham exploits in his choreography, a certain interrupted grace that makes a larger beauty. And I guess also that Cunningham's long artistic partnership with John Cage embodies a certain aspect of New York culture that is practically legend now.

Perhaps it's not surprising that Cunningham's approach to movement and form, so radical and modern then in its dissociation, for example, of music from choreography, looks classical now. This is very clear in the 1956 piece Suite for Five, accompanied by John Cage's minimalist Music for Pianos 4-19, which is absolutely of its time, but still startling in the rigor of its pure movement. It was a series of dances - solos, trios, quintets - each defined from the other by a moment of blackout, which would then lift to reveal the next dancer on the stage as Cage's piano trickled its silence uninterruptedly throughout.

Suite for Five was the acme of style as bare simplicity - no decoration on stage, the dancers in Rauschenberg's citrus-coloured leotards that revealed every contour of their bodies. In its exquisite judgements of spatial relationships it was pure form, pure celebration of the classically beautiful human body. Perhaps this dance will stay with me most, lodging itself next to the poems of HD as an exquisite expression of a certain mode of classically rigorous modernism.

It was followed by eyeSpace, a dance dating from exactly five decades later, that featured the notorious i-Pod shuffles (dutifully picked up from a desk beforehand). At a signal from the conductor, every audience member pressed their button, and was immediately isolated in his or her personal earphones, listening to randomly selected tracks by Mikel Rouse - kitschy salsa music, for the most part, with a sense of subliminal menace.

If you took the i-Pods off, as some rebellious souls did, it revealed an ambient urban soundscape, which could be heard faintly through the headphones for those who kept them on. Much as what happens when you wear headphones on a train or when walking through the city. On stage was what appeared to be a sunken (perhaps post-apocalyptic?) railway station, and the dancers were clad in metallic costumes, rather like escapees from Star Trek. The dance here seemed less sharp to me, even at times distractingly loose, detracting from Cunningham's stern formality.

The last piece of the night, and the most spectacularly beautiful, was Biped, choregraphed to Gavin Bryars's sombre lyricism of low strings and woodwind. In front of the stage was a scrim which I didn't notice at first, so when the first projection - a blue bar - flashed up subliminally, I thought my eyes were playing tricks. This scrim permits Cunningham the full canvas of the stage - onto it are projected abstract drawings of dancers, that pirouette through the air in bright blues, reds and yellows, as well as a series of abtract patterns - lines, sweeping scans that run horizontally or vertically across the stage space, large dots. The virtual dancers were created by motion capture technology, which permits an exact mimicry of human movement, so effectively this piece exploits a double choreography of the projected body and living flesh.

In Biped, the pas de deux is a feature. As the men and women kept combining into strangely beautiful shapes of attraction and repulsion, melding sometimes into a single eight-limbed body, I kept thinking of Plato's story about how the original androgyne was split in two, fated to search eternally for its other half.

Program B, interestingly, didn't make me think of painting at all, although the dances - Views on Stage and Split Sides - were no less visual. Perhaps I had already thought enough about painting, or perhaps these dances focused less on the painterly aspects of space and bodies on a stage and more on the relationships of movement between the dancers. In any case, there was a palpable buzz of excitement beforehand outside the Arts Centre, and a noticeable sprinkling of Sigur Rós fans, there to see their Icelandic heroes. I must say, I couldn't help wondering what they would make of John Cage. I'd still love to know.

Unlike several others, I enjoyed the abstract beauties of Views on Stage, accompanied by a Cage score for piano and violin again notable for its silences. Again there was a classical edge - this time I kept thinking of those statues of Greek athletes or young maidens - reinforced by the short white skirts and bare arms and shoulders of both sexes. Gesture here was almost Egyptian at times, with a ritualistic, hieratic quality.

But the event of the night was, of course, Split Sides. It's introduced by Cunningham and a cast of dice rollers, including Kristy Edmunds and several festival artists, who determine the make-up of the piece. It is, as the title suggests, in two parts, each of them interchangable, and odd or even rolls determine the order of the music, by Sigur Rós or Radiohead, and which backdrops, costumes, lighting designs and dances will come first. Thus, for the mathematicians among you, leading to any number of possible combinations.

In this performance, Radiohead was first, which seemed somehow serendipitious: the electronic urban angst of Radiohead dissolved into the icy fantasies of Sigur Rós. We got the black and white background first, with the coloured, wierdly 70s costumes (reversed in part 2, which follows from the first without pause, to black-and-white costumes against a coloured background). And it was spellbinding, although to be honest I am really not sure why. The bewitching Icelandic electronica of Sigur Rós was accompanied by a strange kind of wooden clockwork sound, as if the stage were a rather anarchic music box, and the dancers themselves the wooden figures come desiringly alive.

Through these two programs, I began to evolve a theory that Cunningham is a master of the pas de deux, though I could be talking through my hat. In fact, I loved the pas de deux in all the works I saw: of all the dance passages, save for an enchanting trio in Suite for Five that made me think of the Three Graces, they were what most compelled me. Through his series of alienating strategies - chance, projections, use of the camera and computer technology - Cunningham strips back gesture and movement to something that at times seems like a pure expression of desire. The kind of thing Matisse can do with a single drawn line. It's probably very Romantic of me to say so, but there we are.

Photograph: Suite for Five. Photo: Tony Dougherty


Matthew said...


The perfect review to end on, I think.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Matt. It was certainly the perfect way to end the festival!

xofro said...

A wonderful duo of programmes: each with its pearls. I especially loved the beautifu,l haunting Biped and the vigorous, invigorating Split Sides, which HAD to get an ovation! We were lucky enough to be able to see Sigur Ros performing - the musicbox sounds were from a kind of xylophone of struck, stroked and manipulated ballet shoes!

Did you see Cunningham's The Melbourne Event - a free hour of dance in Fed Square on the Sunday afternoon? On an oppressively hot and humid day, the entire troupe danced spectacularly in beautiful costumes, little bits of various dances plus some especially choreographed. Merce was (discretely) present, and a large audience lapped up what might have seemed, on paper, esoteric and distancing. it was one of the highlights of the entire festival!

Alison Croggon said...

No, sadly I missed the Melbourne Event. It was on my Day Off... it sounds quite wonderful.