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Flash Review, 7-31: How to Pass, Kick, Fall, Run, and Celebrate
Merce at 50

(Editor's note: As the Merce Cunningham Dance Company celebrates its 50th anniversary, the Dance Insider is celebrating too, with reports by some of our finest critics from New York, Paris, London and Berkeley. The following is the first of our reports, by leading dance critic Chris Dohse.)

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2002 Chris Dohse

NEW YORK -- Watching two programs of Merce Cunningham dances takes a lot out of you. For each combination of sound and image, you must engage and constantly renew what Shunryu Suzuki called "beginner's mind." It ain't easy. Because the dances remind you of places or events in your head doesn't mean that they are about those things. Form is their content. Not to analyze, not to interpret; that is the assignment. But it's sometimes easy to read narrative into their components, especially when the music is accidentally agreeable and the dancers look right at you. You remember Duchamp's doctrine, that a work of art is completed in the imagination of its viewer. You remember the Zen idea that nothing is either good or bad, ugly or beautiful; nothing is better than anything else. Still your brain says, "Yeah, but..." In each of the contained worlds of "Merce 50," seen last week at Lincoln Center, though they are full of accidents and chances and variety and disorder and momentary beauty, nothing is supposed to be anything else; everything is itself.

Certain similarities might be noticed between the group dances that were part of the two New York programs of this 50th anniversary celebration of the Cunningham company: "Pictures" (1984) (Program A) and "Loose Time" (2001) (both programs). In these pieces, a sort of inexorable mystery replaces the "excessively elegant sensuality" Edwin Denby made so much of in his 1944 review of Merce's first concert of solos. Actions are suspended in epic, noble gravity. Bodies become monoliths. The men are particularly meaty, marble-heavy. Stillness and elastic grand plies look tenacious. Feats of steadfast balance and strength and impossible adagios are performed with equanimity to offer what Merce has called the "possible glimpse of the spirit through the body." Individuals and groups travel, not to get anywhere but out of curiosity and a sheer appetite for movement.

David Behrman's vaguely Asian score for "Pictures" layers plucked and bowed stringed instruments over an electronic hum. Aleatory sneezes and coughs, played by the human audience orchestra, are easily included. For "Loose Time," Christian Wolff seems to have placed half of the orchestra up in one of the tiers or somewhere in the ceiling. The dancers of "Loose Time," androgynes in fish-scaled unitards, binary automatons always tilting off the spine, often resemble errant mannequins, sexless tadpoles caught in a Technicolor underwater aridity or eddies of geometric psychosis.

"Fabrications" (1987) (Program B) is already there when the curtain rises, a complete visual system that doesn't need you. The score, by Emanuel Dimas De Melo Pimenta, sounds like the static of a distant radio, or a dentist's drill, or a faraway calliope and a hissing radiator, which after a silence clarifies into a symphonic chord. Dove Bradshaw has scumbled vague lima beans or testicles on the scrim. Clad in pants and dresses like ordinary people, perhaps at a fancy garden party, the dancers might be caught in a familiar Paul Taylor mise en scene without the bathos. There's a little waltzing and what might be curtsying. The cast of 15 looks more like a community than in the other works of this retrospective, more frolicsome and more gender-divided. But the male/female couples look grim somehow too, hidebound.

In "Melange" (2001) (both programs), a video dance collaboration between Merce and Charles Atlas, the camera's eye acts as both participant and audience, darting among semaphored port de bras, quicksilver runs and spatial hijinks, reveling in its complexity of scenario. In an outdoor sequence, clouds are surprising and lovely.

It is a privilege to see history come to life in the recreation of "How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run" (1965) (Program A). Who would have guessed it would be wearing festive pastel jumpers? Here Merce displays his humor and playfulness in movement that is fluid yet pedestrian, while John Cage's text (read by David Vaughan, in his original role, and Merce in Cage's part) is full of charming mushroom-gathering stories and contains this crowd pleaser: "In Zen they say: If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it's not boring at all but very interesting."

In "Suite for Five" (1956-1958) (Program B) you see the dancers as individuals; you notice even more their imperturbable balance. All are equal citizens of a utopian time/space. Especially when compared to Martha's histrionics (she made "Seraphic Dialogue" in 1955), this can be read as a Queer ideal -- not a sexuality but a worldview, an identity position. Free of the duality of feminine/masculine, nothing is fixed; the dancers are uber-athletes, champions. Intermittent blackouts take on the quality of days passing over a heroic gameboard. Identified only by Rauschenberg's Crayola unitards, Blue seems to care about Yellow in their duet. Each episode contains plenty of stillness, but the stillness is alert, alive; it is not repose.

Two postscripts:

My friend Nancy: "I think his work is rich with quite personal and specific meaning for him."

Suzuki: "Our 'original mind' includes everything within itself."

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