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- Preview of the visit of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company to Dance Umbrella 2004

By Donald Hutera


The great octogenarian American choreographer, Merce Cunningham, is returning to Umbrella this year with a tantalising new work called "Split Sides". The title is a nod to the fact that, alongside music by contemporary rock’s great miserablists Radiohead, there is an alternative score courtesy of the otherworldly, head-filling Icelandic band Sigur Rós. (The latter is said to have devised a new percussion instrument for this Cunningham commission; it’s made from shoes, including the band’s own footwear supplemented by tap and ballet shoes.)

There are also two separate dances, two set designs (one by English photographic artist Catherine Yass, another by American teenager Robert Heishman who apparently takes pictures using cameras made from shoeboxes), two lighting plots and two different costume themes. Everyone gets to see everything, but each time in different combinations. Meaning that for each performance, the decisions as to what is danced when and to which score, plus the order of the backdrops, costumes and lighting, will all be determined by a roll of the dice. (Mathematicians and number obsessives will have calculated that all of that makes for 32 potential combinations.) On the first night at the Barbican Theatre, where Split Sides makes its UK debut prior to a national tour, it’s likely that the dice will be publicly rolled by some ‘famous London people’.

Cunningham himself selected the two bands after devouring a stack of CDs. He’d expected to work with just one of them, but plans altered when both agreed to do the project (and on the same day). The stipulation was that each group composed 20 minutes of music. There was to be no discussion of what the other was doing and, true to the Cunningham company form, the first time they were to see the dancers was at a dress rehearsal for the performance itself.

‘I think when we start to put it together,’ Cunningham said in advance of the world premiere performance in New York last autumn, ‘the whole thing will be like a hullabaloo.’

Based on a video viewing of a single performance, Split Sides goes down a treat. It is chock full of extraordinary solos, duets and ensemble passages. The dancing seems as intricate, fast and fastidious as in most of Cunningham’s choreographies. But might this one also be endowed with vulnerability less evident in some of his recent work? Or do I say this, perhaps, under the influence of the music, some of which sounds both celestial and lush?

Each of Umbrella’s Barbican performances of Split Sides will be accompanied by one of two dances from the Cunningham repertory. "How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run" (1965) is a light-hearted piece for eight dancers. Roger Copeland, author of the new Routledge publication Merce Cunningham: the Modernising of Modern Dance, remembers Cunningham’s partner, composer John Cage, ‘sipping champagne as he read quirky anecdotes’ during the performance. Derived from "Silence, A Year from Monday" and other sources, Cage’s stories will be read by Cunningham and company archivist and author, David Vaughan.

"Ground Level Overlay" (1995) is dedicated to the memory of Cage (he died in 1992), who was deeply moved by composer Stuart Dempster’s work. Dempster’s score for this dance, called Underground Overlays, was recorded in a two million gallon former water tank. ‘Any sound made is reverberated warmly,’ Dempster has written, ‘with near perfect evenness in tone quality and
dynamic range over a 45 second decay time.’

The major instrumentation is for ten trombone players who were distributed around the tank’s circumference, as Dempster himself spun slowly in the central spot. Other sound-making devices used were conches, Tibetan cymbals, a didgeridoo and a garden hose. The dance element of the piece utilised the software programme DanceForms (formerly known as LifeForms). With monumental understatement, Cunningham has written that "Ground Level Overlay" ‘continues my interest in dance dealing with
movement complexities.’

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This article first appeared in the Spring 2004 edition of "Dance Umbrella News"

Donald Hutera writes regularly on dance, theatre and the arts for
The Times, Time Out, Dance Europe, Dance Now and Dance Theatre Journal.
He is co-author, with Allen Robertson, of The Dance Handbook.

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