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Flash Flashback, 9-19: Alienation Among the Aleatory
Adrift in Merce's 'Ocean'

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2005, 2006 Chris Dohse

(The Dance Insider has been revisiting its Flash Archive. Merce Cunningham's "Ocean" receives its London premiere on the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Thursday at the Roundhouse, to open the 29th annual Dance Umbrella festival, founder Val Bourne's final as artistic director.)

NEW YORK -- Entering the Rose Theater for Merce Cunningham's "Ocean" on July 14 reminds me of two other cultural phenomena: going to church or going to a museum. In both places people speak in hushed tones, visiting the dead.

The sugarlight pileup at the Time-Warner Center, which houses the Rose, is itself a culture shock, part shopping mall, part gallery, filled with well-dressed, safe pedestrians yo-yoing the floes and eddies of high-end consumerism in silent elevator and escalator banks. Maybe some of them are here for a wedding reception? Black tie seems a bit stiff for a weeknight otherwise.

It's not the church I would have chosen for this artifact. I hold "Ocean"'s 1996 New York premiere, outdoors in a specially constructed round of bleachers in Lincoln Center's Damrosch Park, in reverent nostalgia. My strongest memory is of noticing an airplane far away, overhead, circling for a La Guardia landing perhaps, looking like the underbelly of a whale, while the dancers, scaled to the size of plankton, scampered below. The breeze and the deep blue night suited a work that was epic, a masterpiece, and an instant classic.

That doesn't mean that it has anything to say to the world now. Life, perhaps especially New York life, seems too dire now for 90 minutes of non-interpretive escapist beauty. And this new grandiose framing seems to have sucked the life out of the piece I remember, leaving a clutter of Cunninghamesque husks without essence.

Oh I'm feeling cranky now.

This happens every time I go above 14th Street.

But if this piece asks me to worship it as if it's a sacred part of some late Modernist canon, then I wanna come away uplifted or edified. This "we're just doing solos in the same place at the same time ... standing next to each other ... not associated" dance is no longer an important idea. The construction of any Cunningham piece is intellectually brilliant but the execution of this one feels specifically stale. The dancers seem to be afraid they might flub it, like acolytes carrying their first incense brazier.

I find myself wondering what kinds of images would be coming into my head if the piece was named something else. Cunningham dancers always look like scuttling crabs or preening waterbirds so there's no clue to the work's thematic content there. The animal sounds flooding John Cage's score are just as often from a veldt or forest as they are from the sea. The costumes seem to think the dance they're in is named ROYGBIV. Their vivid color bites the eye. But Gawd, how uncomfortable those unitards look, especially for the boys!

I know that the dance isn't meant to signify anything. Even so, I find myself "liking" the traveling steps the most. The isolated body positions and contortions and impossible balances could seem like groveling before some kind of God. The dancers sure don't seem to be having much fun. Only a few of them bring any breath or ease to their enchainments, or seem to actually be enjoying their performances. The rest look tense. Many of them seem trapped in the compulsory exercises of an Olympics trial. Frankly, this is dull watching. If you remember for a minute that they're actually people and not simply forms in space, it seems quite funny that they should be leaping about for no reason or pausing in impassive equipoise.

I start to use the clocks set at each corner of the playing space to annotate significant events. At 37:29 the girl with short red hair looks at something more directly than the rest of her herd. How welcome is that moment of humanity in her face! At 42:59 I wonder what, if anything, the dancers are thinking about within these long adagios and held poses. Some of the random groupings seem about as alive as strangers waiting to have a snapshot taken. The silent, digital ticking of seconds creates a flat anxiety.

Cage's score mesmerizes, threads of melody arising and falling away within a tonal field. Sometimes these act as codicils to the non-meaning, monolithic scatterings of bodies, sometimes they grind in industrial plenitude. The disk of light over the stage suggests a Spielbergian visitation.

The heterocentricity of the duets troubles me, their stratification of gender. I find myself wondering what kind of instruction is given the dancers for their gaze. They don't acknowledge our presence, which from the intimacy of Row K just feels wrong. But they rarely acknowledge each other either. Or even the fact that they're being observed. They don't "invite being seen," as Deborah Hay urges in her dances. They're just blank. At one time I found this quite interesting to watch, but tonight it isn't speaking to me. This says more about where my head is than about the success or failure of Cunningham's lifelong project and this piece's place in that trajectory. Ultimately, the energy of what the dancers are doing seems necessary, worth doing but impossible to do, and impossible to appreciate. Is it perhaps after all a lesson in impermanence?

It occurs to me that this review has some qualities in common with its subject. Both go around and around without getting anywhere. In Merce's case this is a function of his art, one of its timeless contributions to the culture of any age. It's a damn humbling task to respond to such a thing in the tropes of "criticism." I return to the metaphors of the first paragraph, church and museum, and their dogmatic endgames, blind faith and mummification. Merce is our deity but I'd rather be a heretic than a zealot any day. Or to put it another way: "Ocean" is dead. Long live Merce.

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