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Merce Cunningham Dance Company

'Ground Level Overlay', 'Split Sides'

by Elizabeth Schwyzer

October 8, 2004 -- Barbican Theatre, London

It’s no secret that Merce Cunningham has a lifelong fascination with chance. He’s famous for creating dances without the influence of music, allowing dancers to hear a score only shortly before going on stage so that the coming-together of various elements of a performance holds the mystery of the unknown not only for the audience, but also for the artists. What’s incredible is that fifty years after he first began making work, Cunningham continues to push the boundaries of chance occurrence in his search for new possibilities.

In "Split Sides" (2003), he takes the game of chance to a new extreme. As the title suggests, there are two sections to the piece, as well as two versions of each element of the performance (the choreography, the costumes, the set, and the lighting). Both versions are used in every performance, but the order in which they are used is determined by a roll of the dice, making for 32 possible versions.

Far from jealously guarding his choreographic secrets, Merce actually opens the evening’s performance with an onstage explanation of the process, followed by the rolling of the dice to determine the order and version of "Split Sides" for the evening. Upstage, behind the men determining their fate, the dancers stretch, lunge, and jog in place. Maybe it’s a bit of a facile reminder that they don’t know exactly what they’ll be performing (yeah yeah, we know already), but it serves its purpose: it lets the audience in on the experiment, giving us permission to look with fresh eyes at a brand new piece of work, and to draw our own conclusions.

The programme opened with "Ground Level Overlay", a piece that at less than a decade old has become a signature work in the company’s repertoire. Influenced, like much of Cunningham’s work, by the computer programme DanceForms, the piece contrasts earthy, natural themes with startlingly inhuman, mechanistic movement. The vine-like backdrop resembles seaweed, but at closer inspection contains rubber tyres—strange fruits hanging in the foliage. In dark costumes the dancers flock like pigeons, and float like dust motes. Their outstretched arms become the wingspans of huge grey gulls, glorious in their unthinking movement. And then they twist and slash and cut through space with such severity, they’re more alien than organic.

Stuart Dempster’s musical score uses the extraordinary recording of ten trombones playing in an underground water tank. Warm brass notes sound, bounce and reverberate before being layered by live musical additions, including the sounds of a dijeridoo and a conch.

Friday night’s version of "Split Sides" began with sudden, harsh lighting on bright, splotchy bodies, framed by the photographic set of 19-year-old Robert Heishman, and set to the music of Icelandic electronic band Sigur Ros. The combined effect is a wash of sound, light and colour, suddenly resolving into moments of synchronicity—as when the dancers’ twisting spines correspond to the cranking noise of paper music boxes, making them look like leggy clockwork dolls.

The change of set from black-and-white to colour and of costume from colour to black-and-white delineates the beginning of the second half. The transition from Sigur Ros into Radiohead’s experimental score is less obvious, especially for those expecting anything like the band’s familiar sound. Distorted human voices are mixed with pixellated jabs of noise. As in the first half, the combined effect is a dance between surreal landscape and fleeting portrait. When one dancer’s arm shoots from its socket on the beat of a watery boing, I find myself grinning with unexpected pleasure. And the best part is, that pleasure feels private. It wasn’t choreographed; it was allowed to occur. Maybe nobody else even noticed.


Edited by Jeff.

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