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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
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.
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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