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Flash Review 2, 12-3: Trying to Watch the Dance Go By (with apologies to Marcia Siegel)
Merce, Submerged and Submerging

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- It's gone too far. If you've not already, I'd urge you to read my DI colleagues Josephine Leask and Robin Hoffman for sound opinions on the dance and other elements of, respectively, "Fluid Canvas" and "Split Sides," two recent works by Merce Cunningham. Me, for the former and for side A of the latter, seen last night in their French ('Canvas') and European premieres on the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt in a co-presentation with the Festival d'Automne, the music was so inanely distracting that I found it hard to focus on the dance. There's an argument, I know, for music being more than just a setting or canvas or subject for the dance -- in the case of a collaborator like Cunningham's long-time partner John Cage, it can even be an equal. But John King, who composed the music for "Fluid Canvas" and (with Andy Russ) played the Radiohead music for "Split SIdes," and Radiohead are no John Cage. (King, you'll recall, got his dance start scoring Kevin O'Day, for Heaven's sake!) Radiohead, I'm told, has its legions, but that doesn't make the music fit for Merce Cunningham or the eloquent, crystalline, refined dancers of the Cunningham company. Is it possible that Merce Cunningham has become the latest in a line of dance lemmings so unconfident in the integrity of their art that they feel they have to grab the crutch of another art, even if the swipe carries them off the cliff and drowns the dance?

What bothered me about King's score for "Fluid Canvas" is that it's senseless and often bombastic cacophony not only made it difficult to concentrate on Cunningham's choreography, but that it's apparent cold compositional impetus was so antithetical to the warmth with which the dancers infused the dance. Cunningham's combinations can seem calculated -- you can almost see the grid on which he worked them out -- but are saved by spirited interpretation; for example, the conspiratorial smile with which Jeannie Steele regards a partner when she tilts onto his shoulder, as if to say, "You wanna try this one?" King's rambling score -- here thumpa thumpa thumba, there a piano riff -- just seems weird for weird's sake, but not strange enough to be so interesting as Cage, who was to New Music what Cunningham's been to New Dance. King doesn't have that stature, and doesn't have the right to loom so largely over Cunningham's choreography, drowning out the dancers.

Radiohead has more credibility in its milieu, but I think Cunningham's instincts as a producer failed him in selecting this music for his dance.

If you read Robin's Flash, you know that Cunningham's producing, or organizing concept for "Split Sides" involves flipping the elements for each performance. The choreography, music, sets, costume, and lighting schemes each have two possibilities. Which of each comes first is determined by a roll of dice just before the performance or, in the case of the choreography -- to give the dancers the opportunity to rehearse -- earlier in the day of the show.

At the Brooklyn Academy of music premiere reviewed by Robin, choreographic sequence A preceded B; Radiohead was followed by Sigur Rós, Robert Heishman's set decor came before Catherine Yass's, James Hall's black and white costumes changed into colored ones for the second part, and James F. Ingalls's lighting plot 300 preceded plot 200.

For 'my' performance last night, only the lighting and decor order were different. Robin did get Radiohead live, but I'm not sure exactly what difference that would have made to my hearing, as the score is dominated by sampling, much of it verbal. If a black and white costume scheme seemed to serve the one-dimensional music scheme, I can't comment on how the dance matched it, accept for a general freneticism, as this first 'score' was too bombastic for me to 'see' the dance. In fact, I felt like screaming, and if it weren't Merce and those Cunningham dancers, I mighta walked.

It's a good thing I didn't, because Heaven arrived in the presence of the four very live and very young performers of Sigur Rós, and the deliverance they gave to the dance and dancers, this time adorned in almost water-color unitards, magenta-pinks, golden-browns, and greens dappled with splotchy webs of inky black. I'd been curious since before curtain what that bank of eight pointe shoes in the pit would be used for. Amplified and caressed or lightly beaten by the band, their soles provided the bass percussion in what's most simplistically described as the ambient space-music score. The music's etherealness here heightened the always ethereal Cunningham dancers, lending a "Dances at a Gathering" air to their frolicking. (Except that where Jerome Robbins's community looks upwards at the end of the dance, Cunningham's regard the Heavens from the beginning of this section, heads bent back and arms outstretched as they glide about.) Steele always embodies this serious play aspect of Cunningham for me, but others shone too, particularly the dimpled Jennifer Goggans. In one sequence, she's flipped between Koji Mizuta and Daniel Roberts, one of the moments which most suggested children -- or better, midsummer fairies -- on an outing. But if this is the spirit, their tools are refined; it's gifts like Goggans's silky, (apparently) effortless splits which help make these 'creatures' seem other-worldly. Also shining in this aspect were Derry Swan, who has added a level of authority to her charm, often seeming to center the complicated stage patterns; and Cheryl Therrien, always centered. At one point, Therrien stands at upstage right; a foot begins to tremor, before she finally seems to say "let's begin," and sets in motion the others, crossing the stage lip slowly and steadily as the action continues behind her.

When the music begins to roll (like thunder), the choreography and the dancers' temperament intensifies too. Five men swing their female partners round them at various levels; a larger chorus enters at a rush. As the pace had seemed more luxuriant earlier, when the music was, I wondered if this were serendipity or if the Cunningham rule-book allowed the dancers to vary their tempo in response to the score's. A dancer explained to me later that they can sometimes maneuver in the phrasing, responding to changes in tempo as one might respond to changes in temperature.

Finally, two-thirds into the concert, I'd been able to really see the dancers and the dance, and the result was liberating. To echo Robin's conclusion: Ultimately it all comes back to the dancers.

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company continues through Sunday at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt.

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