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