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Review 2, 12-3: Trying to Watch the Dance Go By (with apologies to
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
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
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
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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