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Merce Cunningham Dance Company

Legacy Tour

by David Mead and Charlotte Kasner

October 5-8, 2011 -- Barbican Theatre, London, UK

David Mead

When it came to the final night of this final ever London season by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company there was bound to be something of a sense of sadness that we would never see the company again. But the three programmes spread across four days were also very much a celebration of Cunningham’s work in all its guises, from the fun of “Antic Meet”, receiving its London premiere 53 years after it was made, through the uplifting “Roaratorio” and the pure dance of “Second Hand”, another London first; the nature-connected “Pond Way” and “RainForest”; and finally to the unbridled joy and digital genius of “BIPED”, still one of the most outstanding multimedia pieces ever made.

The week also showed just how much Cunningham was more than a choreographer of movement. He was an artist who brought together equally eminent modernist creators from other fields in rich collaborations, including in this week alone, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and Brian Eno. Usually, all he gave them was the length of the piece. The rest was up to them. What is amazing is that when the totally independently created designs, music and choreography were put together, somehow they formed a coherent whole.

Cunningham loved television nature programmes and “Pond Way” very much reflects those films. It really is like watching water insects skimming across the surface of a pond, every small movement clearly defined, just as in those documentary close-ups. So often individual dancers all move differently, all facing different directions, but equally all connected by being engaged in the same activity. Every so often there’s a scattering, as if someone, probably Merce, has thrown a stone in the water, before, slowly, order returns. The atmosphere is added to by Brian Eno’s score in which I’ll swear you can hear water dripping, and an abstract of Roy Lichtenstein’s “Landscape with a Boat” that suggests ripples and a surface flower. The only downside is Suzanne Gallo’s over-fussy costumes. The women’s tops in particular make them look more like something from a Grecian frieze, but the biggest issue is their lightness, which magnifies every shake and wobble.

“Second Hand”, from 1970, is all about the dance and nothing else. It’s classic Cunningham in every sense with no sense of narrative and no décor to speak of, although it is given an impressive dose of colour thanks to Jasper John’s costumes, each dancer dressed in a unitard of a single and different colour save on one arm or leg where another blends in. Particularly moving was Robert Swinston, now in his sixties, especially in a duet with one of the younger women. It was almost as if one was watching Cunningham himself, always looking, always searching, and full of slightly hesitant, tentative movement.

The title, incidentally, came about after the Erik Satie estate refused John Cage permission to use the composer’s “Socrate” in any form. So he created a new work, tongue in cheek called “Cheap Imitation”, with the structure of the original, but in which the actual notes played were determined by chance operations.

Given the immediate connection it made with the audience, it seems odd that prior to the Legacy Tour “Antic Meet” had not been danced since 1969. Drawing on Cunningham’s vaudeville background, it’s a series of ten witty encounters and comedic scenes. For many who are more used to Cunningham’s straight-faced total abstractness this all comes as quite a shock. Adding hugely to the fun are Rauschenberg’s witty costumes and designs that include fur coats, parachute dresses, a grossly oversize knitted jumped with too many sleeves but no hole for the head, and, most famously, a chair strapped to a dancer’s back. The music is a version of John Cage’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.

It is full of weird and wonderful invention. Sometimes it is downright absurd. The deadpan comedy recalls the silent movies of Buster Keaton. But there are other crazy moments too: a door crosses the stage and becomes an entrance for one of the women, and two other women perform ballet steps most meticulously while throwing things at each other. One of the men, having chased after a lady, produces an artificial bouquet from his sleeve. But he’s rejected and so buries his head in the bloom sin a Chaplin-like gesture. There’s even a send up of Martha Graham.

There was more fun the following evening in “Roaratorio”, a sort of Cunningham meets Riverdance inspired by “Finnegan’s Wake”, James Joyce’s notoriously difficult novel. Charlotte Kasner writes in more detail below, but suffice it to say that the dancers were quite outstanding. And that’s on top of the Cage’s score that mixes all manner of everyday sounds including dogs barking, babies crying, church bells, guns firing, trains, traffic, crowds and snatches of text from the book with Irish jigs and folk songs. It’s like being at an indoor ceilidh with half a dozen windows open, each to a different world, the noise from each magnified many times. Against this cacophony, but independent of it, Cunningham conjures a host of postmodern jigs and reels, promenades and waltzes. Their very fast footwork was faultless. We are so used that seeing Cunningham’s dancers looking straight faced, yet here there are smiles, laughs, and yes, they are having fun. It brought the house down.

The final evening opened with “RainForest” in which the dance, music and designs invoke thoughts of and symbolise flora and fauna without ever being literally representational. David Tudor’s score is packed with what sounds like birdsong and animal sounds, although the piece is probably best known for Andy Warhol’s installation “Silver Clouds”, a large number of helium-filled, floating Mylar pillows that act as décor. They also provided some amusement for audience as, thanks to a small draught, a number migrated slowly but quite determinedly into the front right of the auditorium.

And so to “BIPED”. If you could select one piece to remember Cunningham by, this would probably be it. The dance moves from slow, quite formal sections, to joyous, fast sequences, packed with complexity, although sometimes so much is going on that it’s difficult to really appreciate just how complex it is. The dancers, dressed in metallic leotards, often enter and leave through curtained booths at the back of the stage, making it seem as if they appear from nowhere.

The digital projections add layers to the real-life dance on the stage. On this occasion the guaze they are projected on to also gave a sense of distance, as though the company was already leaving and we were in the process of saying goodbye. Which, of course we were. You just didn’t want it to end, but the, almost without warning, they were gone. The ovation went on and on.

With the Legacy Tour fast drawing to a close, Cunningham’s company will soon be disbanded, just as he instructed. That decision is understandable. Better, surely, to be left with memories of excellence than have the troupe become a living museum, or even worse turn into a pseudo-Cunningham company as new choreographers attempt to continue his aesthetic and invention, an approach surely doomed to failure.

The works will be preserved by the Merce Cunningham Trust, which has created a digital archive and detailed “dance capsules” for some 80 pieces that will be available to be restaged by other companies with permission. It’s a little like having the Balanchine Trust without New York City Ballet. It is a risk. Performances are bound to attract criticism. The pieces will inevitably look different on dancers less immersed in the Cunningham technique. But what is authenticity anyway? All choreographers’ works change with time; changes in training and bodies see to that. The ballet classics as seen today do not look as they did yesterday, and neither should we expect them to. Perhaps a more pertinent question is just how many companies will have the resources to dance his works anyway. And will they want to?

The technique does appear safe, for the time being at least. Speaking before the opening night, Trevor Carlson explained that although the Cunningham Studio at Westbeth is closing, classes in his technique will be offered at City Center (where the Trust is to have its offices), the Mark Morris Dance Center and Dance New Amsterdam.

Charlotte Kasner on “Roaratorio”

Harlequin pied legs, adage that betrays the Cecchetti legacy, surround soundscape, a movement and aural stream of consciousness, Irish heritage…Cunningham and John Cage's tribute to Joyce's “Finnegan's Wake”, “Roaratorio” has it all.

The movement is seamlessly, technically accomplished and appears effortlessly light, effortlessly strong. Poses are rock solid, terre a terre work precise and fleet. This is one occasion where the fusion of ballet and modern technique provides a perfect synthesis to accomplish physically this most literary of works. It truly is Joyce in 3D, the costumes an artful creation of crafted rehearsal leotards, t-shirts and leg warmers, beautifully lit by Mark Lancaster and Christine Shallenberg with a suggestion of the contrasts of a sunny Dublin day. It literally provides light and shade to the movement that so beautifully matches Cage's sound scenario. Voices crept up on the ears from all around, creating the sensation of being in a snow dome with the snow replaced by sound waves… a snatch of text, squalling brats in a tenement, road drills, Gaelic music, falling and rising, falling again… spliced together from 2,462 recordings made in places mentioned in “Finnegan's Wake”.

Feet twinkled, bodies writhed and stretched in an endless loop of movement that sometimes slowed, then speeded up in precise jumps and doubles work like a living Brueghel painting of brightly coloured, intermingling humanity.

This is Cunningham at his timeless best and showcases the Company, soon to be disbanded, in a fitting tribute to one of the pioneers of modern dance. Seeing a work like this might make one question the wisdom of Cunningham's wish that the Company should not continue long beyond his demise, but perhaps he was right. Cunningham technique may survive Cunningham better than Graham technique Martha Graham because of its rock solid Cecchetti ballet roots, seen in “Roaratorio” in the adages and preparations that enables it to be an extension of ballet as well as moving forward with the moderns. Graham's work was however, largely created on Graham herself was a reaction against ballet, her Company now looking positively balletic and her pieces dated. The existence of a trust that can temper revivals should ensure that we have not seen the last of this work but that it is not allowed to decay and decline as Company members become further removed from the creator.


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