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Merce Cunningham Dance Company / BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, New York City / October 14-18, 2003

Dancing usually hangs out with music—and with good reason. Think rhythmic, structural, and atmospheric support. Think Tchaikovsky-Petipa; think Stravinsky-Balanchine. Merce Cunningham, celebrating the 50th anniversary of his company at BAM this week, was a pioneer in disconnecting the two arts, inviting them to exist in the same place and time yet avoid co-dependency.

With avant-garde practitioners like John Cage, Cunningham evolved the policy of commissioning composers to provide a score of a specific duration (giving them no other parameters or clues to his own intentions), while he created choreography of the same length. Music and dance met only on opening night of the production. So it was not entirely astonishing to learn that a pair of forward-leaning rock bands, Radiohead and the Icelandic Sigur Rós, would provide the sound for Cunningham’s newest work, Split Sides, the ostensible climax of an event-filled anniversary year, though the choreographer usually goes for more highbrow types. But rock commands an audience and BAM, like any other producing organization, needs to sell tickets.

It should be mentioned here that the use, in productions featuring contemporary choreography, of musical and visual artists who will attract their own crowd to the performance is nothing new at BAM. Indeed, this shrewd blend of avant-garde elements, historically related to holes in the wall, with astonish-me spectacle has been a regular practice of the house’s Next Wave series since its inception in 1983. Some of the combinations have been truly organic, the happiest, perhaps, being the teaming of Philip Glass, Robert Wilson, and Lucinda Childs for Einstein on the Beach. Others have been contrivances with an opportunistic air. Fortunately, in Cunningham’s case, given the persistent integrity of his work and his personal dignity (a mix of modesty, piercing intelligence, and wit), nothing the man is involved in looks cheap or merely canny.

Nevertheless, in addition to the musical choice made regarding Split Sides, other aspects of the dance’s construction turned venerable Cunningham practices into publicity stunts. Most important was the roll of the dice, an I Ching practice that allows chance, through its random effect, to enlarge one’s sphere of action beyond the narrow, prejudicial dictates of personal choice. For the 40-minute Split Sides, Cunningham created a pair of 20-minute dances and ordered up two backdrops, one each from Robert Heishman and Catherine Yass, and two sets of costumes and lighting plots, from company regulars James Hall and James F. Ingalls, respectively. A roll of the dice before each performance would dictate the order in which the elements were used in the two-part piece. If all the journalism this adventure generated could be turned into a $100 grant per word, Cunningham might never have to go begging again.

For the opening night gala, attended by a packed house of the rich, the famous, and the curious, augmented by squads of rock music fans and their Cunningham-reverent equivalent, as well as an extra component of security folks, the dice rolling was done onstage, in the presence of the musicians who would later be hidden in the pit and a few dancers picturesquely warming up. It featured New York’s Mayor Bloomberg at his most aggressively exuberant (to compensate for Cunningham’s decades of under appreciation?), with the rolling done by celebs like former Cunningham collaborators Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Cunningham ur-dancer Carolyn Brown.

Eventually, after all the brouhaha, here it was, another Merce Cunningham dance, and this time, as chance would have it, not a particularly distinguished one. Following the dictates of the dice, the first segment used Part A of the choreography, Radiohead’s accompaniment, Heishman’s backdrop (like Yass’s, a pale blow-up of an abstract photo), and Hall’s black and white costumes (hyperactively scribbled-over unitards) as opposed to the ones aggravated with psychedelic tints; the second segment, the alternatives.

Neither sound score was what devotees of, say, Bach—favored by choreographers of various persuasions—would call music. Yet neither, though far less intellectually sophisticated than the work of, say, John Cage, was radically different, in effect, from the aural accompaniment Cunningham has traditionally provided for his dances. Hazard determined whether or not, at any given point in the proceedings, it meshed with the movement or served as a maddening distraction. Both Radiohead and Sigur Rós laid down a background of hypnotic New Age chimes-and-gongs (music to space out on), agitating it with the static of indecipherable speech, mechanical noise, and threats from nature (thunder, the buzz of swarming insects). Presumably the competing, fragmented sounds and rhythms reflected the contemporary mindset. To my ears—untutored in such matters, I grant you—all of it sounded terribly dated. Ignoring its hovering partner, the movement went serenely about its business.

Unfortunately, that business seemed to be a simplistic version of what Cunningham usually does—as if, having lured in a crowd unfamiliar with the sort of dancing he’s evolved in the last half century, he’d made his work more readily accessible. This friendly but artistically diminishing impulse was most evident in the structure department. Cunningham habitually composes long, flowing ensemble passages, streams of dance that seem capable of going on forever. Within these, an individual viewer is free to highlight, through his attention, the action of smaller groups. As if the choreographer had been reluctant to tax the patience of neophyte watchers, Split Sides makes a clear distinction between brief stretches of group movement decidedly reduced in complexity and solos, duos, trios, and so on that stand out—sharp and self-contained—like vaudeville turns. (The opening night crowd applauded several of them with relish.) What’s more, although Cunningham rarely dictates tone, there seemed to be several deliberately humorous patches—playful, even arch arrangements for twos and threes in which the dancers flirted and clowned like figures from some postmodern commedia dell’arte. I felt as if I were watching Cunningham 101, though that imaginary course would, more appropriately, consist of 20 minutes chosen at random from any of the choreographer’s masterworks and viewed in a state of calm receptivity.

For me, the treat of the evening was the 2002 Fluid Canvas, being given its New York premiere. In it, Cunningham’s 15 dancers, ravishingly lighted by James F. Ingalls, epitomize their breed. They’re a highly refined race noted for fluidity, fleetness, psychic as well as physical harmony in the most off-kilter positions, high alertness, and deep concentration. Several of the beautiful glimmering unitards—in gunmetal and aubergine—that James Hall designed for the piece are cut deep to the waist in back, and it was a surprise to see, not five minutes into the action, the gorgeously muscled flesh glistening with sweat, because the figures seemed superhuman creatures for whom effort was unnecessary.

The choreography makes much of unusual postures, sometimes with so much torque to them and such anti-intuitive arrangements of the arms, the dancers look like gargoyles—albeit extraordinarily handsome ones. At the same time, Cunningham allows the upper body to contradict its lower half, so that two very different kinds of activity are going on at once. These explorations do not so much refute classical ballet (which plays a much larger role in Cunningham’s resources than, say, the modern-dance inventions of Martha Graham, with whom once he danced) as they investigate, with a sympathetic curiosity, the reverse of its coin.

More typically of Cunningham—though more emphatically than usual—Fluid Canvas calls our attention to the varying numbers of dancers on stage at a given time. It also makes us acutely conscious of negative space. The voids created on the stage are as potent as the areas filled with human bodies carrying out a wide and subtle range of ever-shifting designs. Towards the end of the piece, the dancers sit hunkered over their own bodies, heavy and one with the earth, it would appear. Suddenly, they help each other up and rush swiftly, light as windswept autumn leaves, into the wings. Once they’ve vanished, the stage remains empty for a few seconds, just long enough to let the emptiness register, then the light is extinguished and the curtain falls. The dance isn’t over, Cunningham instructs us, until our eyes and minds take in the significant condition of not-dancing.

Photo credit: Jack Vartoogian: Daniel Squire and Holly Farmer in Merce Cunningham’s Split Sides

© 2003 Tobi Tobias

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