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Flash Review, 4-5: Change Direction
New Tricks from an Old Master

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider

My friend Romy tells the following apocryphal story. She was interning one summer with the American Dance Festival in NYC, and was assigned to drive Merce Cunningham and John Cage to an event. Merce knew how to get there, she didn't. They stopped at a red light somewhere in midtown, and Romy heard Merce quietly direct her from the back seat: "Change Direction." I recalled this story last night at City Center's Merce Cunningham Dance Company concert, after watching Cunningham's 1958 "Summerspace," and the much newer 1999 "Biped," in which Land of the Giants virtual dancers loom in front and above of real dancers. Or maybe it's relatively tadpole-sized real dancers swimming about, "Fantastic Voyage"-like, inside large virtual dancers. In any case, it was an experiment that didn't quite work for me, even if it had most of the audience en thrall. But I still left the theater preferring watching Merce's experiments to the regurgitations some other veteran choreographers such as Paul Taylor try to pass off as new work.

One snowy October morning, a young man just starting at Princeton walked from the Village digs of his sophisticated cousin all the way up Fifth Avenue to Rockefeller Center. His cousin thought he was crazy, but this was not only the first snow of the season, but the first live snow this California boy had ever experienced. He wanted to taste the flakes on his tongue, and marvel at the pretty girls and soaring buildings on The Avenue. From turning his head to look at the women, and stretching it back to look at the skyscrapers, he finna got whiplash. It took him another 15 years to move to New York, and when he did, he found a cozy nook right off The Avenue. Every day he walked the 50-plus blocks from his apartment on 8th Street to Columbus Circle, near Central Park. Pretty soon it became routine to him, and he no longer looked anywhere but straight ahead.

Then he visited a foreign city -- Paris -- to which he'd never been before. He was lost. He was exhilarated. The more he got lost -- the more he changed directions -- the more he saw, the more he discovered. He hadn't felt this alive in a long time. Time seemed to slow down. He decided he'd move to Paris in a New York minute. But he also determined that before he did, he'd change directions more often in New York.

Okay, the man was me! So, er, getting to last night and almost to the curtain -- hang in there, Dance Insider! -- last night I decided to walk up First Avenue from downtown to City Center, on 55th. Wow! First, you can see the East River at your, er, east. At sunset into twilight, the azure sky and the turquoise water inspire about as much serenity as you're likely to be able to find in New York City. You get to the 40s and start to see the UN. Turn west into Ralph Bunche plaza, up some stairs, over Yitzak Rabin way, down UN Way, and the Chrysler Building looms, and beyond it Grand Central Station. Look up, and on the newly restored ceiling you see the constellations! Right down to faux twinkling stars. It's the grandest parlor you've ever walked through.

Not as many glistening women on this route as the path up The Avenue. Not as many glistening skyscrapers. A little more rough and rugged. And yet I felt more alive, more attuned to my environment than I've felt for a long time on Fifth Avenue -- because of the newness.

Creation should be, most of all, about newness. What I and many people love about Merce Cunningham is that it's more important to him to be constantly inventing a new language than to hug familiar shores, if I can mix my metaphors. I see dozens of post-mod concerts, ballet concerts, and, yes, concerts in the Pilobolus-Momix mode, in which what's being done isn't always new. Crowd-pleasers, certainly. Honest efforts, most of the time. (I suspect more than a bit of cynicism in the way Taylor -- whose dark ballets continue to disturb, and that's a compliment -- has turned out the same froth in his lighter ballets for the past few years, at least the ones I've seen.) But if I see one more brochure that describes as daring a work whose outline I could predict before seeing it, I'm going to storm the stage and start standing around in my own underwear! (Elizabeth Zimmer of the Village Voice, positively reviewing Karim Noack's "Six Months to Live," which takes its plot from Noack's fight against cancer, offers this delicious morsel this week on the La MaMa show: "Arlene Croce would probably hate it. You could, I suppose, call it 'victim art,' and it's certainly agitprop, but it's a hell of a lot more effective and moving than much of the rinsed contemporary work to which I am endlessly subjected.") David Parsons's "Pied Piper" coming up on American Ballet Theatre might actually turn out to take some risks -- Parsons has a way of surprising in his darker works. But the premieres by Paul Taylor and Mark Morris? Proficient, certainly. Entertaining to many? Probably. But a daring programming choice? You want to give me a daring new direction, ABT, turn Bill T. Jones loose on those dancers. Or Mark Dendy. Let me see what Jowole Willa Jo Zollar could do with them, or Pina Bausch.

All of this is to say that what I love about Merce Cunningham is his sheer unpredictability. This is an artist who, at 81, would certainly be forgiven some repetition. But his choreographic raison d'etre is surprise. Usually it's surprise on the micro level -- how a body moves or intersects with other bodies. The group patterns. Sometimes, as with "Biped," in which sort-of-holographic figures created by Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser, using the dancers as sensor-models, along with other particles -- splinters, ping-pong balls, vertical bars -- refract off a transparent scrim, making them seem to inhabit the whole stage like a forest of light trees and ghosts, the change is in the direction of the production.

Now that I've established my esteem for Merce's unrivaled leadership role as an experimentalist, I gotta tell you that this particular experiment left me somewhat cold. Eshkar-Kaiser's apparitions, mesmerizing at first, soon become repetitive. I found myself yawning. (Although the long walk might have played a part there!) And yet, paradoxically, even as we know their movements are not one-hundredth as interesting as those being performed by the human dancers, because of the virtual dancers' novelty, because they're in front of and bigger than the live dancers and thus seem to dwarf them, and maybe also just because they're made of light, and we're drawn to light -- they have the effect of diminishing the live dancers and making it hard to focus on their movement. The virtual creatures certainly aren't constant, so I was able to glean that the movement on the live dancers is some of the most varied I've seen in the handful of Merce works I've observed. We get solitary dancing, small groups, large groups. Limited partnering, more vigorous partnering, right up to tossing. Quick changes of pace. Contributing to the diminishment of the dancers, I think, is that, as my non-dancer companion observed, the real and virtual dancers never interact. Indeed the most poignant moments come when Robert Swinston looks up as if he senses this larger force hovering (or is it that these real bipeds are actually living inside these larger beings, exploring them as in the film "Fantastic Voyage"?); and when Lisa Boudreau and Daniel Squire, towards the dance's climax -- and yes, it does have a climax, as I said, Merce always surprises -- step farther downstage than anyone before, with Boudreau even kneeling, and seem to reach out to touch the scrim, as if they've finally realized they are not alone. ("I believe!")

It's kind of the nightmare I referred to in yesterday's Merce review, in that case a post-apocalyptic scene from a Donald McKayle ballet: As if the pre-historic creatures just bubbled up from the ocean in "Pond Way" have now been catapulted, Howard the Duck like, into a world they never made and maybe aren't even aware exists beyond/above/over/around them. I'm not sure whether they were at peace with it, I just know that I wasn't. I think perhaps it's also that Merce's work is already so high-tech, that seeing it on live dancers gives it a humanity that I at least crave in a dance performance; seeing it on virtual dancers, and in a much more limited choreographic scope, is a little too scientific for me.

"Summerspace," by contrast, finds our Cunninghamian heroes a bit closer to the age of innocence. I'll refer you to my colleague Alicia Mosier's earlier Flash for the overall contours of the ballet. Since last night's cast was different, I do want to report on them. The last time I saw this ballet was on the dancers of New York City Ballet, who did well by it. What's different here is where the NYCB dancers evoked birds, their protean modern equals were, well, as my companion said, amoebae. Not just in the ways they individually moved, but the ways they would suddenly, erratically, jut off in one direction, intersect each other, disappear, or re-appear: Like amoebae seen under a microscope will randomly dart about. I was compelled by Cheryl Therrien's seriousness of purpose, and delighted by Derry Swan's winsomeness. Ashley Chen's visage and carriage -- the way he held his torso and the way he did a plie -- looked uncannily like Merce in the old films or photographs. And while I was dazzled by Jeannie Steele's fleetness, it also meant she disappeared all too fast; I didn't get enough of her.

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company continues at City Center through Sunday, before going on national and international tour. For more information, please visit the MCDC web site.

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