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Flash Review 2, 11-20: Market Merce!
A Parisian Paradigm for Popularizing Dance

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- I wasn't planning to see the Merce Cunningham Dance Company when it touched town at the Theatre de la Ville Sarah Bernhardt earlier this month. Not that I couldn't see this choreographer and those dancers at work and play again and again; but I had seen them again and again in last Spring's City Center season, and figured any seat I took would be more appreciated by a Parisian who had never experienced "RainForest" and "Biped" before. But a French friend who teaches English at university called and and said she was planning to take a student group Friday, and would I care to lead a post-performance discussion? As I'd already given my view of these works last Spring, my angle was going to be Merce, and these dances, as seen through the eyes of Parisians. Well, for the past three weeks, the hottest ticket in town, sold out before it even opened, was Merce. My friend and charges were unable to secure tickets. So, with a suggestion that those who want more details can also check our previous reviews by typing "RainForest" or "Biped" in the search window at the left, I'm going to focus on what these dances suggest by way of getting more Americans to our dance concerts.

Though produced 31 years apart, in 1968 and 1999 respectively, "RainForest" and "Biped" are not all that dissimilar. In both, Merce and the dancers collaborate with pop artists most connected to the pop art zeitgeist of the time: In the older work, Andy Warhol, and in the latest, virtual artists Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser. Both Warhol's floating silver pillows and Eshkar/Kaiser's floating projections -- seen on a transparent scrim, and including virtual dancers who trace their origins to real dancers Robert Swinston and Jeannie Steele -- are shiny and dazzling and offer the dancers serious competition for our attention. Competition, yes, because, for one, the floating pillows -- whether circulating randomly, or propelled by kicks from the dancers or even a punch from music director Takehisa Kosugi when they strayed into the pit -- and the virtual artists' luminously (tho never as luminous as Ms. Steele) colored lines and figures, are eye candy in their easy appeal to our eyes. The appeal of the decor is more simple; there is nothing to figure out, unlike in the intricate and peculiarly mannered choreography of Cunningham, as idiosyncratically expressed by the dancers.

Where the dances depart from each other, I think, is in sophistication. Even through the dazzling lights of virtual dancers and patterns, one can detect there is a lot going on in Mr. Cunningham's mind in the blueprint for "Biped." These ideas start with the powerful manner in which the dancers often enter: Necks craned back so that their heads and eyes are squinting at the sky, Chicken Little-like, except that whatever's up there they appear to want to be ready to catch, with their arms outstretched as they mince onto the stage. Somewhere towards the conclusion, several men rush on and drape clear plastic raincoat-like things over the women, which, this time around, I perceived as a sort of chiffon tutu a la Merce (actually, a la Suzanne Gallo), and then proceeds some pretty typical couples dancing -- almost waltzing, really.

In all this, Mr. Swinston and, to my mind, Ms. Steele, Cheryl Therrien, and to an extent Derry Swan and Lisa Boudreau act as signposts. Things calm down a bit, the lights dimming, whenever Mr. Swinston enters, usually gravitating to center or upstage as the others coalesce around him or at least seem aware of where he is. Ms. Therrien, often lit somberly by Aaron Copp, represents pensive reflection; Ms. Swan seems to dart and whip on and off-stage (altho she offered a nice contrast to this flitting with a more deliberative participation in "RainForest"); and Ms. Steele, as hinted at above, gives the much more giant android/light dancers competition for our attention, giving off at least as much, and often more, of a glow than they and of course being human. They seem to appear from the ether, but it is she who is radiant.

Ah, there's the rub. The first time I saw this dance I was pleasantly dazzled by the cyber-dancers and other designs in their pwetty colors and quick appearances. The second, a nagging concern that the special effects distract from or even dilute the human ones began to tic at me. On this third viewing, I was sure of it; sitting, this time, closer to the dancers, I could see that in fact, that was hella complicated choreography they were essaying and which Mr. Cunningham had invented; this I could not discern so easily sitting farther back at City Center.

If you think you know where I'm going with this -- guess again! If anything -- and folks, I'm not being sarcastic -- seeing this ballet, in this context (Paris) gave me a bit of an idea which I'd like to throw out there: As I said, Merce was sold out before he opened here -- which was not the case in NYC at City Center. We think of NYC as a dance town, and to the degree that great dancers gravitate there, in turn providing a great palette to choreographers, who together create great work, which great presenters usually get behind, and dedicated dance writers and editors do their best to publicize (Gia Kourlas of Time Out stands out in this regard) and which many dancers and dance fans go and see, and often it sells out -- sure, it's a dance town. But folks, NYC ain't a dance town the way Paris is. The difference is that here, knowledge of dance -- not only who's performing where, but the names of the works and even of the dancers -- is not limited to the dance community or the dance cognoscenti. My French teacher knows the names of the principal Paris Opera Ballet etoiles and principals by heart. Everyone has seen Preljocaj. Everyone has seen Marin. And Forsythe. They know the dance theaters. I think the difference here is that the valuation of art among Parisians is almost universal -- and dance, perhaps moreso than in the US, it seems, is valued as an equal to theater, music, and even visual art. (Nothing but food is on a par with cinema here!)

While art may not be quite as universally appreciated in the US as it is here, it is appreciated on a larger scale than dance. Merce's genius of course doesn't depend on his using Cage or Cage-like music, or employing Warhol or Rauschenberg. We'd love him if the dancers appeared naked with no sets and no music and did his bidding. But I think it helps explain why Merce is -- almost uniquely -- so widely known beyond the dance cadre in the US. I first heard his name from my dad, who is not particularly a dance fan, but who knows his art, and his music, and accessed Cunningham from these vantage points.

So, I have two propositions, one general and one specific to "Biped."

One, at the risk of being presumptuous, I'd like to propose that choreographers ask themselves if there are possibilities they have not considered for incorporating visual art in their creations. Doesn't have to be elaborate or expensive. Warhol's pillows are groovy, but as often the artistic component in a Cunningham piece is just one painting, and perhaps matching costumes. Then market -- yes, market! -- what you're doing beyond the community of those who love dance, and to art lovers as well. Many of you are already doing this; can we see more?

Two, why not capitalize on "Biped"'s cyber-hipness even more? Send it to Broadway! Like Momix's "Baseball," tour it with a separate ensemble so that it's in constant international rotation! We're talking "Riverdance,'" here, folks; Mathew Bourne, except that it doesn't make fun of dance and isn't just one extended homo-erotic joke; "Billboards," but without the cheese! Because beyond the nifty special effects, you see, Merce also gives us, with "Biped," actual original choreography! Art! My dream is that given wider exposure, this work would draw audiences not typically part of our audience with its promise of spectacle -- and then convert them with the real dance that persists beyond the cyber-dancing. Really, I'm serious about this. We assume Merce is giant in reputation because he's giant to us and because even our non-dance friends know who he is. But really, compared to the popularity I witnessed here the last three weeks -- did I mention "Sold out," with forlorn Parisians pacing in front of the theater, chill winds from the Seine buffeting them, with signs asking for "une place, SVP," the looks on their faces not unlike those on the sad souls with the "SVP, je faime" signs begging for money? -- compared to this popularity, I would almost say we are hoarding him. The stakes are not just confined to Merce, of course; no one does what he does as well, but a lot of others do it pretty damn good, and they'd benefit from any increased audience for the Master.

Thoughts? E me at paul@danceinsider.com.

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