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Flash Review 1, 9-12: Satanic Merce's
Cunningham & 'Biped' Cohorts Drop New 'Canvas'

(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 Josephine Leask
Copyright 2002 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- What better way of opening the Dance Umbrella season -- London's main dance gig of the year -- than with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company? London has been honored this year not only with the company itself on its 50th anniversary but a world premiere, a couple of UK premieres, and a residency at the Barbican. Seeing the opening night Tuesday, the eve of the anniversary of 9/11, I felt touched that a New York dance company was presenting a new work to us with so much confidence, so much optimism and so much generosity.

The clouds of anticipation wafted over the auditorium of the Barbican theatre for the world premiere "Fluid Canvas," a collaboration between Merce and digital artists Paul Kaiser, Shelley Eshkar, and Marc Downie. (Cunningham collaborated with Kaiser and Eshkar on the 1999 "Biped.") In semi-darkness, a dancer moves across the stage while a stream of blue lights projected onto the backdrop screen showers over him. This stunning opening, which looks like a fireworks display, is indeed a surprise -- Cunningham performances are not renowned for their spectacular openings and endings, they usually just begin or just end.

The dim lighting reveals the dancers' charcoal unitards, designed by James Hall, with their red and blue shiny strips glinting like wounds on extra-terrestrial bodies. A rattling soundscore like an empty subway train going at some pace is aurally present too, created by musicians John King and Takehisa Kosugi. (I liked this score because I kept thinking the beats were about to break into the all too familiar clubby base line of House Music, but thankfully never did. They were way too random and far too eccentric).

The first motion-capture generated images, after cascading into dots, mutate into other sketchy forms throughout the piece in shades of electric blue and green. Non-literal images move fleetingly over the backdrop like smoke, and occasionally describe something less abstract. One of the most concrete and recurring images is that of a giant pair of blue hands which seem to be covered in warts. This is a startling image and contributes to the sinister edge which "Fluid Canvas" possesses. While Cunningham works can often take on a Sci-Fi look by means of their extraordinary dance technique, costumes, sound and decor, I've never seen Cunningham look this scary before. There are sections, particularly when the company is on stage en masse, where the dancers resemble a secret society carrying out some satanic ritual.

The pace of the work is rapid, and the ending abrupt. Technically speaking the dancers are on top of the speed, and once again I think how weird this technique looks with its scurrying triplets, limb and back extensions, off-center balances and dives that turn the dancers into toppling skittles while partner work is a series of wonderfully awkward negotiations. Nothing in this technique is smooth or symmetrical and every time it is mesmerizing to me. A female dancer bathed in cascades of green motion-captured scribbles performs a solo which produces another high point.

Motion-capture technology enables dancers to draw in 3D space; movement is recorded by tracking reflective sensors which are attached to the bodies of the dancers. Cameras around the body record the position and rotation of each sensor in time and space, then feed the information back into the central computer. Motion-capture is not such a new idea in the world of design or visual arts, but is still relatively new to the world of dance. Choreographers like Merce who work with it do so to increase repertoires of imagery or to extend the scope of the physical body. Arguments against this say that it is movement without the body, reducing the body to mere sketches, and it is so accurate that human idiosyncrasies or mistakes which give a dance character are erased.

Kaiser explains in the program notes how he started to collaborate with Merce. The digital artists created images in a 3D space that were purely from the movements of digitally recorded dancers, which were then "re-sequenced and re-combined by Merce with unprecedented precision." In other words, Merce took to the technology like a duck to water. There are no limits to this man's curious mind. Unlike many people of his mature years, he has not only kept on top of the technology revolution but has used it in a deeply creative way and one that is entirely appropriate to the Cunningham look and its juxtaposition of sound, image and dance. While many people worry that dancing bodies will be forgotten in the huge light of the technology, Cunningham dancers can certainly hold their own and have always done so.

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