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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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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