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Review 1, 10-24: Happy Accidents
In Cunningham's "Split Sides," the Details Make the Difference
By Robin Hoffman
Copyright 2003 Robin Hoffman
Photo by Jack Vartoogian
NEW YORK -- It was an
exciting night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Tuesday, October
14. Upon stepping out of the subway I was greeted by a scalper with
"Radiohead" tickets. Well, yes, Radiohead was playing that night
at BAM; in the pit for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company's world
premiere of "Split Sides." I'll admit I haven't always been thrilled
at a Cunningham performance; sometimes I have been bored and annoyed,
sometimes fascinated and inspired. As Cunningham ballets usually
emphasize the element of chance, I figure I usually have a 50-50
chance of loving the show. Tuesday night I got lucky.
Before the performance
began, the curtain rose on Mayor Michael Bloomberg (so that's
what he looks like), welcoming Merce Cunningham, the company, and
the members of Radiohead and Sigur Rós, collaborators on
this new dance. You see, "Split Sides" has two parts to each production
element: two separate sections of choreography, two musical compositions,
two sets of decor, two lighting plots, and two sets of costumes.
Before each performance, a die is cast to determine which of each
element will appear first and which will appear second, based on
whether an odd or even number is rolled. So, there are 32 possible
versions of "Split Sides." For Tuesday's performance, the order
of the choreography had been determined earlier that afternoon,
so the dancers could have a rehearsal. That evening, the die for
the remaining elements was rolled by, respectively, Carolyn Brown,
Sage Coles, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg. It was determined
that Radiohead would play first and Sigur Rós second, Robert
Heishman's backdrop decor would preceed Catherine Yass's, James
Hall's black and white costumes would be worn first and then the
dancers would change into his colored costumes for the second half,
and James F. Ingalls's lighting plot 300 would precede his lighting
Farmer, Derry Swan, Jennifer Goggans, Jonah Bokaer, and Ashley
Chen in Merce Cunningham's "Split Sides." They are
wearing James Hall's colored costumes, and that is the Robert
Heishman decor; a different combination than the performance
reviewed here. Photo by Jack Vartoogian.
I wanted to be able to
discuss the decor elements in this review, so I had Googled photographer
Catherine Yass earlier. She works with a large-format camera and
shoots two virtually identical photographs, one a positive color
transparency and one a negative, and layers them to make a composite
picture. She then adjusts her colors and composition from there.
Her pictures have a blurred, architectural quality. She often installs
the photos in light boxes to further intensify their contrasts.
Perfect for the stage. There is much less information about Robert
Heishman online, since he's still in high school! He is a photographer
who was discovered by Merce Cunningham. He likes to use a camera
obscura, which is a completely dark box with a tiny hole in one
side (instead of a lens) and photographic paper on the other side.
He makes his own cameras out of shoe-boxes, and works exclusively
in black and white. So, one decor version would be in black and
white, and one in color, like the two sets of costumes; and I expected
color to be a significant element in this performance. It was, but
that was only the beginning.
The curtain rose on a
stage clad in black and white. Heishman's backdrop was an abstract
pattern of soft grays with a horizontal emphasis. A circular screen
hung high above downstage of all the action, perhaps representing
the pinhole of the camera obscura. The dancers' unitards were painted
with a tie-dye kind of pattern, each individual different. The dark,
strong moodiness of Radiohead came from the pit, with melody but
without a repeating tune. The choreography began with phrases in
unison, followed by a procession from stage right to stage left.
A voice track interjected something having to do with religion.
in my admittedly limited experience, is truly abstract. There never
seems to be anything ornamental or dramatic in the movement itself,
except in the same way that say, a spiral staircase is dramatic.
Dramatic tension comes (if it comes) from context or from composition,
not from the actual steps. The movement seems devised to divide
space, gestures remind me of architectural forms. Since the choreography
is created separately from the music, any drama occurring there
is the result of a pure juxtaposition rather than an expression
of musicality. Of course, a crucial element is the skill and eloquence
of the Cunningham dancers, who can make movement absolutely sing.
One sequence that took my breath away occurs in choreographic Section
A, when Ashley Chen stands motionless upstage while Cheryl Therrien,
Derry Swan, Jennifer Goggans, and Jeannie Steele dance slowly in
a square formation. It became a meditative moment. Out of nowhere,
like magic, Chen suddenly erupts into a series of exquisite big
jumps. The solo tapers down into a series of promenades on one leg,
with a releve in between each(!). It's an awesome display of technique
without the slightest hint of bravura. This sequence would be striking
in any case, I think, but since I knew the environment surrounding
it was just one of many possible, it made me think about why it
struck me as so beautiful. Would the mood be different with the
other music or decor or costume or lights? Of course it would.
I found the transition
from choreographic Section A to Section B most satisfying. Light
was projected through the circular screen downstage, as if to make
a window through the Heishman backdrop to reveal a circular patch
of the vibrant colors of the Yass backdrop. Then the screen and
the Heishman drop rose and the Yass backdrop was revealed, all blues,
violets and hot pinks in vertical striations. The dancers appeared
in unitards with colors echoing Yass's, but also with v-necklines
and loose, flared legs; as opposed to the tight-fitting neck-to-ankle
line of the black and white costumes employed earlier. The softer,
more dulcet sound of Sigur Rós seamlessly took over the aural
dimension. The dancers were flitting about out of unison, each doing
his or her own thing. It was as if school had just been let out
for the summer.
An important part of
my experience that night, I think, was that I had witnessed the
dice throw before the show started. I felt my participation as an
audient, as if I had won this combination. I was very aware
of my own discovery of the way the dance unfolded with this combination
of elements, and identified with the dancers as they were affected
by the environment. I wanted to see it again with other combinations.
It would feel different to dance the same steps surrounded by color
rather than black and white, and in different clothes. Ultimately
it all comes back to the dancers.
The program opened with
the New York premiere of "Fluid Canvas," previously reviewed here
by Josephine Leask.
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