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Flash Review 1, 4-4: Revelation
Merce Cunningham and the Secret of Dance
"Every dance is and gives ecstasy.
The adult who puts his arm around his companion in the ballroom, and the child
in the roadway, skipping in a round dance -- they forget themselves, they dissolve
the weight of earthly contact and the rigidity of daily existence. How much more
intense the reaction of primitive man, whose unburdened mind offers so little
resistance to every stimulus and whose body, unstunted and undisciplined, responds
to this stimulus without restraint to an extent that is foreign to us."
-- Curt Sachs, "World History of
the Dance." (W.W. Norton & Co., 1937. Translated by Bessie Schonberg)
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider
For about eight years now, I've been
going to dance pretty regularly, with a fairly simple goal: to get more people
to see what I see. Ask me what I see -- or if you asked me before April 3, 2001,
8 p.m. -- and I'd say I see dancers who uplift me with their ardent determination
to soar. And who, at other times, strip away the layers I've erected around my
heart to protect it from feeling pain -- no, from reacting to pain -- too deeply.
Ask me -- before 8 p.m., April 3, 2001 -- why I want to turn other people on to
dance, and I'd say, because I want them to be uplifted by it, to be able to contact
their deeper emotions through it. Ask me an hour later, as I sat in Row O at City
Center watching the dancers of the Merce Cunningham Company, no longer able to
find a language adequate to describe what I was seeing, and the answer would be
a somewhat self-annihilating one. That I long to return to the time when we did
not rely on words to formulate a response to art, to music, to our environment,
to the man who jostled us, to the friend who came over, to the woman to whom we
wanted to express love -- or not just love, any more nuanced emotion near it.
A time when the word had not so emasculated us and become such a crutch that our
bodies, while still technically unbridled, had become very limited vehicles of
expression. We wave. We shake hands. We kiss on the cheek. If we're French, we
kiss on both cheeks. Sometimes we hug. But mostly we talk. Actually we don't talk
anymore, we e-mail. We have bodies -- but what do we do with them, really?
I now think that we go to dance,
not to see what bodies are capable of, but to remember what our bodies used to
be able to do. Almost like we're in a natural history museum, marveling at some
pre-historic relic. Beholding what our bodies did pre-verbally. How they used
to be able to express our feelings, reactions. These Cunningham dancers, as given
these all-new ways of expressing themselves physically by Merce, are, first, in
"Pond Way," newborns. It's pre-history. They float, really. Even Brian Eno's score
suggests In the Beginning: It palpitates from beneath the sea, really. They hover
above it, as if just emerged. Above them is a pointillist Roy Lichtenstein horizon,
oh so limited a world it represents -- black and white, points and white space,
the points, the words filling it until there is no longer room to move your body,
even if you knew what you wanted to say with it.
I'm thinking now of a Donald McKayle
ballet, "Gumbo Ya-Ya," which I first saw being created eight years ago on San
Francisco Ballet. Two Edenesque beings, Muriel Maffre and Eric Hoisington, see
their world destroyed by some sort of cataclysm. They wake up -- are transported
-- to a modern society. Skyscrapers in the background. James Newton's score evokes
the sound of a type-writer. Click click click click click click click. They are
losing each other -- a duet of trying to hang on to each other. A shaman -- Yuri
Zukhov -- arrives. I think he's trying to save them....
I tried to get up, a few minutes
ago, from in front of this computer, to respond, physically, to what I'd seen.
To see if I could come up with anywhere near the variety of gestures and planes
and tilting and interacting and pace and pictures the Cunningham dancers brought
to life in "Interscape," a New York premiere last night. I even put on some minimalist
music, Morton Feldman, in this case played by the Kronos Quartet, because Merce
has set to Feldman. (Much simpler than the John Cage score which the dancers wrapped
their bodies around and broadened last night.) I tried to arch and stretch my
body, and felt its resistant stiffness. It moves in a couple of planes. It has
three or four pivots. Even the skin feels stiff.
I've always thought that I enjoy
the touching part of being in love because of, well, the being in love part. But
really, it's one of the few remaining occasions for expressing ourselves where
we let our bodies do the talking -- where somehow, in this one remaining communication,
we know that our words would really be inadequate, and that even something so
simple as the back of a hand stroking a thigh says so much more because it is
so novel, so original, that no man will ever touch any woman in the same way,
on the same spot. I say I love you because I want to assure you with something
you'll recognize right away, that's unambiguous, that's not open to multiple interpretation.
But what if I suddenly couldn't speak with my mouth? What if I forgot all the
words? Would I go back to Alvarado elementary school to learn the words again?
Or would I go to Bethune Street and ask Merce Cunningham -- if I had my wish --
to teach me how to respond, to react, to express with my body? Would I go to City
Center every night of this week, and watch the new ways that this 81 year-old
man who was dancing before my parents were born is still finding for bodies to
express themselves? (Set off by marvelous backgrounds and costumes such as the
pastiche collages Robert Rauschenberg provided for "Interscape.") And marvel at
the ability to express this new language and give it life demonstrated by Cedric
Andrieux, Jonah Bokaer, Lisa Boudreau, Ashley Chen, Paige Cunningham, Holley Farmer,
Jean Freebury, Jennifer Goggins, Mandy Kirschner, Koh Minato, Daniel Roberts,
Daniel Squire, the luminous Jeannie Steel, Derry Swan, Robert Swinston, and Cheryl
The Cunningham season continues through
Sunday. For info, please visit the
company's web site.
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