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Flash 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 plot 200.

Holley 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.

Cunningham's choreography, 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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