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Flashback, 9-9: Event for No Rain Delay
Baptized by Merce & Co., Lower Manhattan Cultural Council's 'Evening
By Nancy Dalva
Copyright 2002 Nancy Dalva
(Editor's Note: To
celebrate its fifth anniversary of being online, the Dance Insider
is revisiting its Flash Review Archives. This Flash Review originally
appeared on September 4, 2002. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company
gives a free performance of "Batteryparkevent" September 16, beginning
at 7:30 p.m..)
NEW YORK -- Prologue:
I had the program on my desk for a long time: Evening Stars. OnStage!
At The Twin Towers. Twyla Tharp Dance. Saturday, September 8, 2001.
As it happened, that was an exceptionally beautiful late summer
night, and the space was fantastical -- a golden urban amphitheater.
Tharp's company opened with her "Mozart Clarinet Quintet K581,"
an inherently contradictory work that teased and confused, so that
your eyes didn't trust your ears. The dancers cavorted and consorted
in flippant formalities, all curlicues and politesse, and the music
sported along, but underneath, the clarinet sang a plangent lament.
The dancers didn't seem to hear it. They seemed so happy! What's
going on, the ears asked the eyes? But if you placed the music,
metaphorically, under the dancing, you could see. The stage was
like ice, very thin; the dancers were like skaters, skimming over
dark, deep, bitter cold water. This was Mozart, near the end of
his life, writing a piece of music for a friend. This turned out
to be us.
Fourth Annual Evening
Stars Music and Dance Festival, Historic Battery Park City, Sunday,
September 1, 2002. Merce Cunningham Dance Company. It was raining
on Sunday in lower Manhattan, but nobody was calling off the concert.
In the afternoon, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company rehearsed at
home in Westbeth instead of on site, but by six o'clock they were
in Battery Park, getting the feel of the space, and wearing sweats
to keep warm. The audience straggled in like a couple of hundred
wet cats, sitting on the grass atop complimentary garbage bags,
which warded off the damp from below, if not above. Umbrellas popped
up like mushrooms. The dancers exited off to their backstage trailers
to get dressed in bright salmon unitards, tie-dyed by their longtime
wardrobe mistress, the late Suzanne Gallo. Someone came out and
attached a balloon-like cluster of Andy Warhol's metallic silver
air pillows to the front of the metal scaffolding framing the new
stage, which is handsome and well proportioned. Within the proscenium
another handful of pillows drifted on high. In their original incarnation
they were set for "Rainforest," which seemed apt. In the far grey
background, a boat passed by.
At seven o'clock, the
lights went up, edging through the gloom. After WNYC's melodic Joanne
Allen made us welcome, Liz Thompson, who is the executive director
of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, somberly opened her new
outdoor theater with a nod to the Cunningham company's longevity.
(It is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary.) Thompson looked
determined as she told us that some of the stage crew on hand had
been at the base of the towers on September 11, and that she had
been there, too, but she did not mention that she had been on the
last elevator to leave Windows on the World. (This one knew from
the New York Times.) She thanked us for coming, and she said, "It
will stop raining."
The Cunningham Company
walked out, and the performance began. The dancers assumed positions
on stage, and froze. To the left, a little grouping. In the center,
a single heroic figure amidst more modest others. Off to the right,
some clustered individuals. Down front, another few. They all held
their poses. The lights shifted. They broke position, re-grouped,
and re-froze. And again. Meanwhile, there was silence, but not because
there wasn't music. The score was John Cage's 4'33", which is exactly
four minutes and thirty- three seconds of quiet. It was originally
played by David Tudor, seated at a piano with his hands in lap.
Probably because of logistics, there was no piano in the park, but
that seemed as right as the rain, since Cage has been dead for more
than a decade, and Tudor is gone, now, too.
"Events," you may know,
are selections from the repertory, and perhaps some special material,
seamlessly combined by Cunningham to suit the time and place. Events
are performed without intermission, with random costuming and score.
They have a cinematic scope, but the aura of a happening. ( I used
to consider Events paradigmatic Cunningham, the perfect illustration
of his methodology -- to wit the use of chance to make order, and
the independence of the decor and the music -- but now I'm not so
sure. On the one hand, I've seen Events that were so coherent and
legible and inevitable as to be masterpieces of stagecraft. On the
other, I've seen discrete Cunningham dances, like "Field and Figures"
and "Biped," which involved several different styles of dancing.
While Cunningham has
used 4'33"-- the dance and the music -- on occasion to end an "Event,"
as at one season at the Joyce Theater, I don't know that he's ever
before begun an Event with it, and the choice seemed anything but
made by chance. As they sometimes do in his work, the dancers here
assumed not only human character, but scenic properties. ( For instance,
they portray grasses in "Loosestrife," and beach boulders -- as
well as people and birds -- in "Beachbirds.") Here, in Battery Park,
they were, all at once, Edwin Denby's dancers, and buildings, and
people in the street. There was a stateliness and a seriousness
about them, a gravity. You looked at them, frozen in time and space
and silence, and you mourned.
The rest of the evening
was a study in perseverance. At the foot of the stage, Takehisa
Kosugi, the company musical director, and Christian Marclay, a composer
whose alluring medium is old record albums, performed entirely concealed
beneath a plastic tarp which kept their electronic gadgetry from
electrocuting them. They looked, from the back of the lawn, like
a small, lost iceberg. From the surrounding speakers, what could
have been the Japanese for "Let me out of here" broke forth, pursued
by a swarm of angry bees. Later, I think Ella Fitzgerald sang "I
Love Paris." Towards the end, the imperturbable Kosugi emerged into
the drizzle for some loopy riffs on a little stringed instrument
he played with his usual consummate dignity. Meanwhile, as the dancers
ran through their paces, you could tell, if you knew the work, that
their performances were, if not cautious, not given to abandonment
either. During one sequence, Cedric Andrieux, a Frenchman whose
presence in the dance is at all times of heroic dimension, crawled
out from the side and dabbed vigorously at the floor in a manner
more practical than noble. This gambit, twice repeated, was assumed
by someone near me to be part of the dance. I assumed the floor
At times, as when Jeannie
Steele leapt backwards into the arms of two men who carted her off
backwards into the wings, I recognized the "Event" material -- in
this case, it was "Scenario." I also recognized the marvelous duet
from "Points in Space" originated by Alan Good and Cathy Kerr, and
I think I saw Jean Freebury dance Trish Lent's role in "Change of
Address." As it grew darker, the stage became clearer. There in
the center was a beautiful and signal Cunningham construction: a
circle resembling the lilting formation in Henri Matisse's Dancers,
which not only belongs to New York's Museum of Modern Art, but also,
as the choreographer once told me, used to hang in poster form in
Cunningham's dentist's office. This circle was not from the middle
of "Beach Birds," where you can also find it, but from "Ocean,"
a grand-scale work in the round which was strange to see on a proscenium
stage. Here the circle is drawn, if you will, by a group of men.
Next, out come the women -- and one man -- who will replace them,
scurrying one by one into and out of the circle. I remembered cherubic
Jared Phillips in the role. Now it was razor- sharp Koji Mizuta,
with Phillips in pentimento. Suddenly, the stage was awash in correspondences.
Robert Swinston raised his arms to the heavens, and where Cheryl
Therrien had sheltered last, Jennifer Goggins now leaned in.
I kept remembering,
the dancers kept dancing, and the rain kept raining. Then, with
several dancers in what seemed like themiddle of an elegant sequence
of lifts and holds, the rest of the company tumbled precipitously
onto the front of the stage, and everyone lined up and bowed. Cunningham
himself came out, and people stood up and applauded. Usually, an
"Event" has a clear end, some activity that signifies aesthetic
closure. Whether Merce called the curtain -- not that there was
a curtain -- because of time, or weather, or because the "Event"
had run its course, I cannot say. It simply ended as it was happening,
in media res. Nothing could have been more appropriate. A day later,
the rain stopped.
Nancy Dalva is the Senior Writer for 2wice.
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