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Merce Cunningham Dance Company

Event at the Barbican

Still taking risks

by Lyndsey Winship

June 17, 2005 -- Barbican, London

A performance by the Merce Cunningham company would be an event even if it wasn't named as such. At 86, Cunningham is still seemingly as excited by experimentation as ever. Apparently, he rubs his hands with glee when people walk out of the theatre during his shows, which a few did tonight at the Barbican. And you sympathise with them, because being part of a Cunningham event can be hard work.

It is not Cunningham's choreography which is challenging. His dancers are the embodiment of divine abstraction, showing off precision placing, endless balances and balletic grace in ever-inventive phrases. When it comes down to it, Cunningham is a sucker for a beautiful line, a joyful leap and a playful duet. Here, he has chosen sections from his vast repertory and strung them together to make a different work each night, but everything springs from a clearly defined physical language - there is order at work.

The risks Cunningham takes are all to do with the collaborating artists that go to make up a complete performance. Every night at the Barbican different artists and musicians are creating the set, costumes and music independently and joining together to see how their worlds collide.

Tonight's featured artist is Roger Hiorns, who offers a set of what look like giant melting light bulbs lined up along the back of the stage. They turn out to be columns of foam which expand and topple during the performance. Much more imposing is the music, mostly improvised live by composers John King, Stephen Montague and John Paul Jones (of Led Zeppelin). Their individual contributions join together to make a multi-layered beast of electronic rumbling, scratching, burbling and clanging, shot through with the occasional pounding riff or slice of silence. Bar a welcome appearance from a John Cage prepared piano piece there's little melody or coherent structure to be found.

While there’s nothing wrong with atonality, soundscaping, and improvisation in themselves, in tandem with Cunningham’s choreography this sonic onslaught at times feels absurd. There are moments where the dancers are spookily in sync with a rhythm or mood coming from the pit, but mostly the music grumbles and roars uncomfortably while the dancers banter, laugh, jig, muse and meditate.

While it’s a consuming game to try to find links and similarities between the music and movement, another angle is to work on separating the elements in front of you, to zone in on just what the dancers are doing, which, let’s face it, is what Cunningham did when he created it. To feel the inner rhythms of the dance, to get caught in a small sequence of repetition, to hone in on the real quality of the tiniest movement - this is often the most satisfying part of the experience. Never mind the bigger picture.

Cunningham’s risk-taking and his desire to engage with contemporary artists is admirable. He still asks questions about art and makes his audience do the same, but it doesn’t always pay dividends. Thankfully, despite all the surrounding hoo-ha, in the end it’s the dancing that makes this an event worth witnessing.


Edited by Staff.

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