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2, 8-13: Instances of Climax
Merce, in Rare Film & Video and in a New 'Event'
(Editor's Note: In celebration
of the 50th anniversary of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, the
Dance Insider is covering 50th anniversary performances by the company,
as well as archival film and video showings, in New York, Paris,
London and Berkeley. To read more about Merce and co., please enter
"Merce" in the Ohio State University-sponsored search engine window
on our Home page.)
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider
PARIS -- Is it possible
for one choreographer to exhilarate and exasperate you -- er, me
-- in the course of two days? If the choreographer is Merce Cunningham,
aided and abetted by John Cage, David Tudor, and Takehisa Kosugi,
absolutely! In celebration of the Merce Cunningham Company's 50th
anniversary, the Paris Quartier d'Ete festival Saturday co-presented,
with the Cinematheque de la Danse and the Institut National de l'Audiovisual,
an evening of vintage Cunningham and Cage film and video at the
Palais de Chaillot. The festivities moved last night to the Palais
Royal, where they'll continue through Wednesday with the revival
of "How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run," previously reviewed here by
Dohse, and "Event for the Palais Royal," suffered through
by moi last night.
But let's start with
the good stuff.
Before the soiree Saturday,
I was beginning to think that I was burned out, my critical faculties
atrophied to mere descriptive ability. "They moved their arms up
and down. A man and two women danced together before they left.
It was pwetty." But "Variations V" and "Suite for Two," both dating
from the 1960s, assured me that it was the dance I'd been seeing
lately which was less than stimulating.
"Suite for Two," a 26-minute
Universal Video, was made in 1961, the year I was born -- and, man,
what a world to be born into! Merce, Carolyn Brown, and (in tuxedos!)
composer-musicians John Cage and David Tudor, together with an uncredited
director, bring us back to a time when Modern Dance and its music
were pure Modern Art. About to be eclipsed by the non-virtuosic
pedestrianism of Judson, Merce here presented dancers and musicians
who by their obvious virtuosity could have been dancing ballet and
playing symphony halls, but who had chosen Modern Dance as the expression
of their gifts.
Brown perches atop a
mobile ladder to begin the piece, pure sixties chic mod beauty in
her long coiffured hair, sleeveless white blouse, and black tights,
and it's virtuosic. Cunningham rolls a trundle along, and it's virtuosic.
One of the musician composers is wheeled under the piano and begins
to bang it, and it's virtuosic. He scales the ladder and resets
a clock, again and again, and it's riveting. Cage grunts or whistles
or bangs the piano top shut, and it's high art.
Indeed, the black and
white recording has the flavor of the late '50s, early '60s, Omnibus
live studio performances that one could find back then even on commercial
television. Albeit an abstract dance, "Suite for Two" is organized
thematically into sections broken up by elegant titles adorned with
the figures of the two dancers and the two musician-composers, with
titles like "A Meander."
A colleague observed
that the performers all looked so straight; I agree and I think
it accounts in part for what I liked: What we're seeing here is
not Modern Dance and music that are anti-performative, or ugly,
or self-pitying. The excitement that people must have felt going
to these performances at the time, to see Modern Art synthesized
in a moving art, is palpable.
"Suite for Two" is a
rare gem indeed. "I wasn't even aware it was taken," Cunningham
insisted, noting that at the time it must have been shot, "The Pope
died, and everything changed." A colleague who's been a part of
the NYC dance scene for a while said she was not familiar with this
video; I'd urge its presentation by one of the New York-based dance
"Variations V," filmed
in 1966 by Stan Van Der Beek for Hamburg television, is a synthesis
too, reminding us that film, montage, and standing and hidden mikes
that could be set off by dancers are nothing new.
"There were three elements
of technology" involved in this piece as recorded, Cunningham remembered
in remarks before the soiree, which also celebrated the 20th anniversary
of Cinematheque de la Danse, to which Merce made sure to give a
"We danced around microphone
poles which had wires around the stage around which we had to balance,"
he explained. "Each time we came within proximity of a mic, there
was the possibility of making a sound." There was also a huge "artificial
plant, with mics hidden in its branches. Every time Carolyn Brown
changed the branches, there was the possibility of a sound. (And)
at the end of the piece I road a bicycle, again (creating) the possibility
of sound -- the bike contained a mic in its wheel. At rehearsal,
I found there was a pole I could hold onto at the exit. I thought
it was strong, so that I could hold on and the bike would keep going."
Because this bit of
acrobatics was supposed to come at the blackout, the pole was wrapped
with black and yellow plastic to make it easier to see -- but, as
it turned out, harder to grasp. "I fell to the ground," Merce recalled,
"and I couldn't go on. But there was a performance the next day,
so I had to go on." The film medium added possibilities to this
particular performance that weren't possible in its live performance,
Merce said. "I don't remember much about it, it was so complicated."
Considered in a current
landscape where the execution of mundane tasks in post-mod dance
or performance art often comes off as, well, mundane, it was amazing
how thrilling it was to watch Merce and Brown simply disassemble
the plant and put it back together again; or Gus Solomons place
an outrageous headpiece on another woman dancer. I think it was
that it was all so serious; they were engaged, and so it followed
that we were. Perhaps what's missing in the attempts of a younger
generation of choreographers to do the same is that they don't always
project that they believe in the tasks. They seem to be mocking
what they're doing at the same time they're expecting us to pay
attention to it.
But this commitment
disparity isn't the only reason younger dancemakers should watch
films and videos like "Variations V." The use of montage and other
film and video images, on screens and overlaid on the dancers, reminded
me not only that multi-media isn't new, but that current practitioners
aren't doing much new with it. The images selected were anything
but random; scenes from what looked like "Born Yesterday," with
Judy Holliday, were in the loop, as were TWA and PanAm jets -- remember,
this was the dawn of the jet age -- in flight. I also liked the
spinning multiple reel-to-reel decks, operated by Cage and, I think,
Tudor, in suits and ties.
The whole -- tape deckoligists
Cage and Tudor, films projected on screens and over the dancers,
the high technical facility of the dancers, and Cunningham's geometry--
gave the spectacle the air of a grand experiment. Which, of course,
A joy here too, for
newbies like me, was to see the beautiful (I use that word sparingly,
but it's the best one here) and young Gus Solomons, who in bearing
anyway is here a match for Merce.
Merce being Merce, most
film and video treatments that I've seen seem to vie with their
subject for far-outness. In my experience anyway, the actual straightforward
documentary is rare. So particularly educative was "Merce Cunningham
& Co." shot by Benoit Jacquot and Herve Gauville in 1982 for Belgian
Just as in the way they
began the film with an overhead of NYC, zooming in on the company's
Westbeth headquarters and studio, reveals a fascination with NYC,
the directors' curiosity about the process of teaching and learning
a dance is also apparent in a video shot entirely on Bethune Street.
So, much more naturally than the recent Violette Verdy film whose
core was her coaching of several couples, this 44-minute video includes
long segments -- most notably one with Susan Emery -- of the 63-year-old
Merce, svelte in white long-sleeve jersey and tight red sweats,
creating and setting dances. In a private session with Emery, teacher/choreographer
and dancer/student traverse the stage laterally, he assuring her
that they'll stop after each phrase. As they cross, he is both her
partner, lifting and otherwise supporting her, and her instructor
in nuance and phrasing.
This documentary also
includes some illuminating responses from Merce to the filmmakers'
questions. Merce responds in French, but him not being French I
could actually understand what he said. After Merce has been trying
to teach the group a new sequence, Alan Good steps forward to say
how he understands it. Merce nods and as Good returns to coach the
rest of the dancers, Merce tells the interviewer in French, "If
one dancer understands it, I understand that it is possible. And
I continue." There's also this gem: "I search; sometimes I find."
And: "Each instant is interesting; each instant is a possible climax."
I guess that's what I found excruciating about Event for Palais
Royal (seen last night), and indeed what I've found challenging
about the three or four MC Events I've now seen: There is no climax
and no dramatic arc to which one can hang on. The Event dances don't
seem to go anywhere. Yes, I know, this is on purpose, but that doesn't
mean I have to like it! Individual segments were attractive, such
as one in which several dancers take turns performing solos, duets,
or trios while the rest sit on either side of them watching as if
arrayed around a campfire. But even though I liked these people
-- particularly the ever-ebullient, lustrous and luminous Jeannie
Steele and the more quietly gripping Robert Swinston -- I still
felt trapped like a character in Sartre's "No Exit."
Swinston also figures
centrally in the revived "How to Pass, Run, Kick and Fall," which,
as assistant to the choreographer, he helped Cunningham and Brown
reconstruct. I'm assuming that Merce played the central character
when the piece premiered in 1965, and it's a curio to watch Swinston
evoke the quirkiness of Merce -- by sheer dint of doing his dance
-- without sacrificing his own soul. Centered a la Swinston at his
entrance, which begins the piece (seemlessly last night, the "Event"
flowing right into it), as it progresses he becomes more flitty
a la Merce, particularly in a segment where he nervously flexes
his fingers apart from the group. But he's atypically (for Swinston)
speedy throughout; that this jars a bit reminds one that despite
that Merce's choreography often makes the dancers seem like neurons
bouncing off each other, the dancers' personalities always out.
One more note on something
the films brought out before we list those dancers for you: I could
see how Merce's vocabulary extended what Martha started. Where she
broke the vertebrae and folded the body at the gut, he then took
both the expanded movement possibilities this presented and the
fine planes of ballet and expanded the abstractive possibilities
of dance as a Modern Art.
The possibilities for
abstract music have expanded to in the fifty-years since Cage began
scoring Merce's piece. But you wouldn't know it from what Takehisa
Kosugi and Christian Marclay produced for this "Event." One of the
reasons I was fidgeting in my seat last night, besides that my neighbor
was half in it and refused to budge, was that the score composed
and played by Kosugi and Marclay was acerbic without offering much
new aesthetically. I am willing for my ears to be hurt if my brain
is being stimulated, but that wasn't happening. Cage worked with
noise but he did not produce cacophony. Except when Kosugi was simply
playing his sonorous violin or when they opted for quiet, last night's
soundscape was pretty run of the mill. (Marclay's mixing was nothing
20-year-old turntable artists haven't been doing for twenty years.)
The miracle was that
whatever the composer-musicians gave them, the dancers last night
were on it. In addition to those already mentioned, they were, in
the "Event": Cedric Andrieux, Jonah Nokaer, Lisa Boudreau, Ashley
Chen, Paige Cunningham, Holley Farmer, Jennifer Goggans, Mandy Kirschner,
Koji Mizuta, Daniel Roberts, Daniel Squire, and Derry Swan. "How
to...." featured Bokaer, Boudreau, Cunningham, Farmer, Jean Freebury,
Roberts, Squire, Steele, and Swinston. The deep sea known as Cheryl
Therrien was unfortunately nowhere to be seen.
In the film and video
soiree, "Variations V," 1966, featured, in addition to Brown, Cunningham,
and Solomons, Barbara Lloyd, Sandra Neels, Albert Reid, and Peter
Saul. (Neels, Reid, Solomons, Jeff Slayton and Valda Setterfield
also contributed to the reconstruction of "How to Pass, Kick, Fall
and Run" by sharing their recollections of the dance.)
Dancers filmed in the
1982 documentary "Merce Cunningham & Co.," produced by INA, included,
in addition to Cunningham, Emery, and Good, Ellen Cornfield, Lise
Freedman, Neil Greenberg, and Swinston. (It was also a nice treat
to see this last in his Cunningham infancy.)
PS: In a tres gentile
gesture, the Cunningham evening at the Palais de Chaillot, a home
to the Cinematheque Francaise, opened with a curio to cherish: a
Sol Hurok-produced 15-minute film of Carmen Amaya, the greatest
Flamenco dancer ever. Seeing Amaya dance in an elegant nightclub
accompanied by a full orchestra, one was reminded that Flamenco
was not always ghettoized as "ethnic dance" but once occupied center
stage as concert dance. Beholding her dance in pants was a reminder
that as beautiful as this dance can be -- on men and women -- it
is not about adornment but virtuosity. And an interlude featuring
the great Flamenco guitarist Sabicas, without the dancing, reminded
of the double-threat offered by Flamenco. The Cinematheque de la
Danse opened the Cunningham soiree with this treasure as an anniversary
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