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Merce Cunningham Dance Company

'CRWDSPCR,' 'Second Hand,' 'eyeSpace'

by Carmel Morgan

March 27, 2008 -- Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, DC

On March 27, 2008, at the new Sidney Harman Hall in Washington, DC, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company treated its audience to an indisputably entertaining evening.  Accosted at the theater entrance by smiling young faces demanding “collateral,” audience members waited in long lines to be handed tiny i-pod Shuffles that were to be used to listen to Mikel Rouse’s score for the last work on the program, “eyeSpace.”  The lobby was abuzz with technologically-challenged folks, distant from the hip-hop generation, getting lessons about how to perform the most basic of functions – turning the little object on and off and adjusting its volume.

Due to the novelty to many of this hand-held device, “eyeSpace” was easily the most anticipated piece of the night.  During the work, patrons tilted their heads and fumbled with their gadgets, making a dance of their own that was well worth watching.  Yet for all of the hype, “eyeSpace” was the least pleasing of the program’s three works.

In “eyeSpace” the dancers wear unitards of varying shades of blue.  The “décor” is the remarkable “Blues Arrive Not Anticipating What Transpired Even Between Themselves” by Henry Samelson, who also designed the costumes.  Geometric figures rain down from a salmon-colored wall behind the dancers, who themselves become figures in Samelson’s art.  The atmosphere is of another world.  The dancers’ movements are carefully placed.  Even when jumping, they throw nothing away.

With the i-pod Shuffle, one’s personal music selection is different from what the dancers are dancing to, and different from what one’s neighbors are hearing through their headphones, even though everyone is listening to some part of Rouse’s “International Cloud Atlas.”  It’s cool to be able to have a direct hand in the randomness that inspires Cunningham’s choreography, but it’s also kind of maddening.  In the moments of purposeful silence pre-programmed on the i-pod, one can hear the outside music (honking cars, subway sounds – the sort of things headphones normally tune out) bleeding in.  Actually, without the volume turned up quite high, one can consistently hear the “other” music rattling in the background.

Once or twice, the music coincides serendipitously with what’s taking place on stage,  but most of the time, the movement and music annoyingly counter one another.  It doesn’t help that some of the music contains spoken words: “10 minutes!”; “Stop in the name of love”; “We must protect America’s secrets”;  “It’s not about you,” etc.  The dancing in “eyeSpace” isn’t terribly engaging, perhaps because of the distraction created by the i-pods.  The work as a whole reminds one of a child’s dream after devouring too much cotton candy and Coke at the circus – a clash of music, color, and dance bordering on nightmarish.

Opening the performance was “CRWDSPCR,” choreographed by Cunningham in 1993  using the computer program “LifeForms,”  restaged by Jeannie Steele and Robert Swinston, Cunningham’s choreographic assistant, in 2006.  It’s hard to believe “CRWDSPCR” debuted more than fifteen years ago.  It looks thoroughly contemporary, but it must have appeared even more cutting-edge when it first hit the stage at the American Dance Festival.  Given the disparate movement and music (John King’s “blues 99”), the cohesion is surprising.

Dancers cross the space against a turquoise backdrop, with leaf-patterned lighting on the floor.  They wear harlequinesque costumes featuring large blocks of color.  The piece is rich in angles, the movement precise and often insular.  It feels and sounds at times like a vintage video game, and is just as fun to watch.  Dancers run, hop, and hitch-kick around, making connections.  Then, with a sudden pivot or fast, insistent footwork, they form entirely new groupings.  The energy-driven dancers continue to move even as the curtain closes in front of them.

It was exciting that the revival of “Second Hand” (choreography by Cunningham in 1970 to “Cheap Imitation” by John Cage, with costumes by Jasper Johns) premiered in DC.  “Second Hand” was the last work Cunningham actually choreographed with the music.  It’s an extraordinary  and completely contemporary collaboration.

Swinston, in a collared canary yellow unitard, is striking in the opening solo.  He resembles Cunningham, who danced in the work decades ago.  Swinston commands attention with lovely small gestures, gentle balances, and a rustling of the hips.  Equally gorgeous is his duet with Holley Farmer, who shines with flirtatious leg extensions and an unusual rising up from the floor from an almost-split position.  The eight dancers who join them, in vibrant orange, red, blue, purple, and green unitards, seem like puppets, each pulling his or her own strings.

There is a certain weight and fierceness to the work which is alluring.  The dancers share moments of stillness, frequently staying for long periods on relevé.  Several dancers create a long diagonal line, hands linked, to form a soothing shape, as the soloist Swinston dances to the side.  Witnessing “Second Hand” is like seeing life breathed into a painting.  The clusters and colors make it a moving modern art piece.

The audience was very appreciative, even reverent, and burst into thunderous applause when Cunningham himself appeared for the bow. Cunningham is almost 89 and was in a wheelchair, but was beaming broadly.  It was a joy to see his company looking so fabulous.  Without a doubt, his incomparable choreography will survive the test of time.

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