Cunningham Dance Company
10 September 2002
-- Barbican Theatre, London.
You can’t help feeling benevolent when the slow-moving, stick-bearing
figure hobbles onto the stage to take his bow with the Merce Cunningham
dancers. Somehow, with his shock of white hair, he shines. And somehow,
the moment that this diminutive, arthritic, slightly fuzzy body stands
alongside the agile, sharply delineated and focused bodies of the dancers,
that sense of unity through extreme difference, which has become a profound
informer of Cunningham’s style, springs to life. A simple moment, and
not arguably even part of the evening’s work, yet a revealing and clarifying
one that galvanises our sense of the choreographer’s personality and creative
Cunningham’s newest piece “Fluid Canvas” premiered at the Barbican on
Tuesday as part of Dance Umbrella. It is pervaded by these questions of
unity versus difference, and of the random versus the planned; the pendulum
of meaning swings between the effortless and the fraught. There is a tangible
search for fluidity, seamlessness and balance in the style, yet in a world
where focus never flows from one place to the next, but is forced to shift
like clockwork, the search is constantly challenged and constantly belies
itself as futile. Shapes are either straight or curved; bodies are either
lifted or contracted; pathways are either direct or circular. The search
for a middle space, for balance, turns itself into a rollercoaster of
extremes: no gentle undulation of controlled rise and fall here, rather
a sequence of giant leap to the apex, giant thump to the ground and giant
hoist to the next apex.
A fluid canvas is in constant flux. The dancers, as visual objects, live
out the fantasy of the piece’s title as endlessly shifting physical entities
arranged and arrayed on a stage. Adding a further level, Marc Downie,
Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser’s digital canvas provides a backdrop to
the movement that is not simply a shifting singular entity, but that creates
a two-fold layering of visual stimuli. The two canvases, like the two
images that we can make out on single photograph with double exposure,
have a unique meaning alone, and another in relation to each other. There
is a sense of epiphany in the union of extremes, yet that achievement
in Cunningham’s work, perhaps as in life, can only be left to random chance.
So, as the piece opens and we find a sea of digital stars framing five
real figures in sparkling twilight blue, the two media seem to have a
fundamental and integral connection. As the star-dots begin to sway and
dance like a join-the-dots representation of real bodies, we expect echoing
and interchange. But of course, what we actually get are slippery look-a-like
moments when we create our own sense of correlation. Like the huge, silver
eclipsing moon that ebbs in seeming tandem to a trio travelling across
from stage right to stage left only to bleed into a curved and non-representative
shaft of white light, meaning waxes and wanes as we wish it.
There is something deeply emotionally resonant about work that plays its
audience with such grace and confidence. At one point, the digital artwork
shows us the hands of a musician gently but masterfully manipulating an
instrument. Of course, any rhythmic or melodic relation it bears to the
actual mechanical sounds we hear onstage is not explicit. But Cunningham’s
images are not to be taken at face value. The question it really provokes
is about who and what is really being played during this performance.
It is a thoughtful, talented and masterful choreographer who can build
his instruments and create a symphony from not just a familiar group of
dancers on the stage but from a first night audience.
Edited by Jeff.
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