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Merce Cunningham Dance Company

'Ground Level Overlay', 'Split Sides'

A cartography of urban aesthetics

by Rosella Simonari

October 9, 2004 -- Barbican Theatre, London

I have always considered my sense of direction as particularly developed but there are two places where I just constantly lose myself both in a literal and metaphorical sense:  one is Venice, no matter how many times I have been there, and the other is the Barbican Centre, no matter how many people I ask for direction to. For the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performance I arrived early, lost myself, found the box-office, collected my ticket and miraculously found the upper-circle where my seat was waiting for me.

I watched the nearly empty theatre to gradually fill up (it was a sold-out performance) with people of all sorts, people interested in dance, maybe, people who work within the dance world, people who enjoy non-narrative dance. Behind me a girl started shouting, maybe she was particularly keen on Cunningham's approach to movement. Maybe. Still when the lights went off and the curtain up I found an unexpected scene of pre-perfomance setting. Dancers in their track suits warming up, a group of people arranged in semicircle in the front part of the stage and him, the demiurge, that is the creator of this universe, Merce Cunningham himself, seated on a stool and ready to address us with one of his witty conceptions. The dice was tossed to set the parametres for "Split Sides" a piece divided into two parts and consisting of dismembered sides, that chance would assemble for each performance into one of the 32 possible combinations out of the two choices each for choreography, costumes, lighting, decor and music. Chance taken the curtain goes down and a busy whispering explodes in the theatre.

But it is "Ground Level Overlay" that opens the 'official' performance with its smooth movement phrases and trombone sound effects. In particular the decor was a stimulating contrasting aspect to the choreography. It was made of hanging ropes and all sort of other elements blending in a pattern of urban flavoured aesthetics. The darkish atmosphere of this piece leaves the way to an icy lighting design for the first part of "Split Sides" with reddish and orange tinted costumes and the music by Iceland's Sigur Ros, partly played live in the orchestra in a kind of aural underworld.

The complexity of Cunningham's choreography emerges in all its power with its articulated patterns and change of direction. The second part is introduced by dancers wearing the Jackson Pollockish black-and-white costumes gradually intersecting with those in red. It is a flowing and sliding beautifully arranged. It seems unthinkable that such a nice combination was the result of a dice rolling! The music by cutting edge group Radiohead pushes to the extreme their shift into a more experimental terrain which began with their 2000 album "Kid A".

I found "Split Sides" a piece of stronger impact with respect to "Ground Level Overlay", and on the overall, being able to see Cunningham himself was the perfect complement to the performance. In his much applauded curtain call, he appeared carefully balancing his weight between his legs, a cane and one of his dancer's arms -- a presence magnetic and powerful.

Edited by Jeff.

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