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Flash Review, 9-4: Event for No Rain Delay
Baptized by Merce & Co., Lower Manhattan Cultural Council's 'Evening Stars' Rises

By Nancy Dalva
Copyright 2002 Nancy Dalva

NEW YORK -- Prologue: I had the program on my desk for a long time: Evening Stars. OnStage! At The Twin Towers. Twyla Tharp Dance. Saturday, September 8, 2001. As it happened, that was an exceptionally beautiful late summer night, and the space was fantastical -- a golden urban amphitheater. Tharp's company opened with her "Mozart Clarinet Quintet K581," an inherently contradictory work that teased and confused, so that your eyes didn't trust your ears. The dancers cavorted and consorted in flippant formalities, all curlicues and politesse, and the music sported along, but underneath, the clarinet sang a plangent lament. The dancers didn't seem to hear it. They seemed so happy! What's going on, the ears asked the eyes? But if you placed the music, metaphorically, under the dancing, you could see. The stage was like ice, very thin; the dancers were like skaters, skimming over dark, deep, bitter cold water. This was Mozart, near the end of his life, writing a piece of music for a friend. This turned out to be us.

Fourth Annual Evening Stars Music and Dance Festival, Historic Battery Park City, Sunday, September 1, 2002. Merce Cunningham Dance Company. It was raining on Sunday in lower Manhattan, but nobody was calling off the concert. In the afternoon, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company rehearsed at home in Westbeth instead of on site, but by six o'clock they were in Battery Park, getting the feel of the space, and wearing sweats to keep warm. The audience straggled in like a couple of hundred wet cats, sitting on the grass atop complimentary garbage bags, which warded off the damp from below, if not above. Umbrellas popped up like mushrooms. The dancers exited off to their backstage trailers to get dressed in bright salmon unitards, tie-dyed by their longtime wardrobe mistress, the late Suzanne Gallo. Someone came out and attached a balloon-like cluster of Andy Warhol's metallic silver air pillows to the front of the metal scaffolding framing the new stage, which is handsome and well proportioned. Within the proscenium another handful of pillows drifted on high. In their original incarnation they were set for "Rainforest," which seemed apt. In the far grey background, a boat passed by.

At seven o'clock, the lights went up, edging through the gloom. After WNYC's melodic Joanne Allen made us welcome, Liz Thompson, who is the executive director of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, somberly opened her new outdoor theater with a nod to the Cunningham company's longevity. (It is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary.) Thompson looked determined as she told us that some of the stage crew on hand had been at the base of the towers on September 11, and that she had been there, too, but she did not mention that she had been on the last elevator to leave Windows on the World. (This one knew from the New York Times.) She thanked us for coming, and she said, "It will stop raining."

The Cunningham Company walked out, and the performance began. The dancers assumed positions on stage, and froze. To the left, a little grouping. In the center, a single heroic figure amidst more modest others. Off to the right, some clustered individuals. Down front, another few. They all held their poses. The lights shifted. They broke position, re-grouped, and re-froze. And again. Meanwhile, there was silence, but not because there wasn't music. The score was John Cage's 4'33", which is exactly four minutes and thirty- three seconds of quiet. It was originally played by David Tudor, seated at a piano with his hands in lap. Probably because of logistics, there was no piano in the park, but that seemed as right as the rain, since Cage has been dead for more than a decade, and Tudor is gone, now, too.

"Events," you may know, are selections from the repertory, and perhaps some special material, seamlessly combined by Cunningham to suit the time and place. Events are performed without intermission, with random costuming and score. They have a cinematic scope, but the aura of a happening. ( I used to consider Events paradigmatic Cunningham, the perfect illustration of his methodology -- to wit the use of chance to make order, and the independence of the decor and the music -- but now I'm not so sure. On the one hand, I've seen Events that were so coherent and legible and inevitable as to be masterpieces of stagecraft. On the other, I've seen discrete Cunningham dances, like "Field and Figures" and "Biped," which involved several different styles of dancing. )

While Cunningham has used 4'33"-- the dance and the music -- on occasion to end an "Event," as at one season at the Joyce Theater, I don't know that he's ever before begun an Event with it, and the choice seemed anything but made by chance. As they sometimes do in his work, the dancers here assumed not only human character, but scenic properties. ( For instance, they portray grasses in "Loosestrife," and beach boulders -- as well as people and birds -- in "Beachbirds.") Here, in Battery Park, they were, all at once, Edwin Denby's dancers, and buildings, and people in the street. There was a stateliness and a seriousness about them, a gravity. You looked at them, frozen in time and space and silence, and you mourned.

The rest of the evening was a study in perseverance. At the foot of the stage, Takehisa Kosugi, the company musical director, and Christian Marclay, a composer whose alluring medium is old record albums, performed entirely concealed beneath a plastic tarp which kept their electronic gadgetry from electrocuting them. They looked, from the back of the lawn, like a small, lost iceberg. From the surrounding speakers, what could have been the Japanese for "Let me out of here" broke forth, pursued by a swarm of angry bees. Later, I think Ella Fitzgerald sang "I Love Paris." Towards the end, the imperturbable Kosugi emerged into the drizzle for some loopy riffs on a little stringed instrument he played with his usual consummate dignity. Meanwhile, as the dancers ran through their paces, you could tell, if you knew the work, that their performances were, if not cautious, not given to abandonment either. During one sequence, Cedric Andrieux, a Frenchman whose presence in the dance is at all times of heroic dimension, crawled out from the side and dabbed vigorously at the floor in a manner more practical than noble. This gambit, twice repeated, was assumed by someone near me to be part of the dance. I assumed the floor was wet.

At times, as when Jeannie Steele leapt backwards into the arms of two men who carted her off backwards into the wings, I recognized the "Event" material -- in this case, it was "Scenario." I also recognized the marvelous duet from "Points in Space" originated by Alan Good and Cathy Kerr, and I think I saw Jean Freebury dance Trish Lent's role in "Change of Address." As it grew darker, the stage became clearer. There in the center was a beautiful and signal Cunningham construction: a circle resembling the lilting formation in Henri Matisse's Dancers, which not only belongs to New York's Museum of Modern Art, but also, as the choreographer once told me, used to hang in poster form in Cunningham's dentist's office. This circle was not from the middle of "Beach Birds," where you can also find it, but from "Ocean," a grand-scale work in the round which was strange to see on a proscenium stage. Here the circle is drawn, if you will, by a group of men. Next, out come the women -- and one man -- who will replace them, scurrying one by one into and out of the circle. I remembered cherubic Jared Phillips in the role. Now it was razor- sharp Koji Mizuta, with Phillips in pentimento. Suddenly, the stage was awash in correspondences. Robert Swinston raised his arms to the heavens, and where Cheryl Therrien had sheltered last, Jennifer Goggins now leaned in.

I kept remembering, the dancers kept dancing, and the rain kept raining. Then, with several dancers in what seemed like themiddle of an elegant sequence of lifts and holds, the rest of the company tumbled precipitously onto the front of the stage, and everyone lined up and bowed. Cunningham himself came out, and people stood up and applauded. Usually, an "Event" has a clear end, some activity that signifies aesthetic closure. Whether Merce called the curtain -- not that there was a curtain -- because of time, or weather, or because the "Event" had run its course, I cannot say. It simply ended as it was happening, in media res. Nothing could have been more appropriate. A day later, the rain stopped.

Nancy Dalva is the Senior Writer for 2wice.

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