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Flash Journal, 11-8: VegeMerce
Events from Down Under
By Chloe Smethurst
Copyright 2007 Chloe Smethurst
MELBOURNE -- A major focus of the Melbourne
International Arts Festival this year was the work of
Merce Cunningham and his collaborators. The program
included performances by the Merce Cunningham Dance
Company (MCDC) as well as a concert by the Cunningham
company's Music Committee. Quotes from John Cage were
illuminated on an electronic billboard at Federation Square and a series of films about Cunningham's collaborations was screened at the Australian Centre for the Moving
Image. Forums, exhibitions, and parties were also on the menu, even a Musicircus, an event based on a concept by Cage which involved multiple simultaneous performances lasting from dusk 'til dawn.
MCDC began a week of performances with "The Melbourne Event," a free performance at Federation Square on the afternoon of October 21. Two
stages were constructed on the sloping plaza with a
walkway in between for the performers, with the audience gathered all around. The
dancers wore bright orange and red unitards as they
performed in the heat of the afternoon; the weather didn't seem to affect them as they gave a polished and professional display.
The dual performance platform was utilized well by
Cunningham, who contrasted adage sections against
allegro and intimate duets against larger group
sequences on the separate stages. The music was as
atonal and abstract as one would expect, performed
live by members of the Music Committee. Cameras set up
around the venue fed live footage onto a large screen
above the musicians, giving a different perspective on
the spectacle every few minutes.
Seeing the dancers up close and without theatrical
lighting made the whole experience quite relaxed and personal;
it seemed easy to connect with the action on stage. The geometric
architecture of the square also enhanced the
performance, acting as a fitting decor for
Cunningham's abstract choreography.
Viewed on October 25, the first of the two formal
programs given by MCDC at the State Theatre included
"Suite for Five," "eyeSpace" and "Biped." While "Suite for Five"
was the oldest on the bill by 40 years (it was created in the period 1956-58),
it was easily the most effective and certainly the most succinct.
The clear, uncluttered movement that was obviously so
groundbreaking at the time includes many shapes and
positions that have become part of today's generic
contemporary dance technique class. It begins with a solo, performed here by
Daniel Madoff with excellent control and mature
self-confidence, featuring long extensions of the
limbs followed by contractions, with the arms and legs
often in very open positions.
Similar movement motifs follow in a solo by Holley
Farmer and throughout the piece, yet even when all
five dancers are on stage, the movement and the
patterns created in space are crystal clear.
The bold colored costumes, open necked unitards for
the men and leotards and tights for the women, along
with the simple lighting and colors on the cyclorama
really set the dance in a particular epoch, making it
appear as though it had arrived in a time capsule.
Cage's score suited the movement so perfectly, it's
hard to believe that they were created in isolation
from each other. Performed by Christian Wolff, the
twangs from Music for Piano 4-19 underlined and echoed
the action on stage.
"EyeSpace," created last year, was somewhat of a
different story. With Mikel Rouse's melodic pop score shuffling on my iPod
and a rumbling, distorted urban soundscape emanating
from stage, I felt quite disconnected from
Cunningham's abstract choreography, as though it was
just another scene rolling past the window as I rode
There were some striking arrangements for the dancers,
including a perpetually looping male trio and a
complex duet sequence of hands grabbing and missing,
with stiff legs describing arcs through the air, but most of the movement was
quite awkward. While it's an interesting experiment to allow the
audience members to shuffle through the score at their own
pace, it was really hard to reconcile Rouse's tuneful,
relaxed music with the space-age silver costumes and
deconstructed art-deco set, both by Daniel Arsham, not
to mention the complex yet completely unrelated
The design elements of "Biped," a work previously reviewed here by Asimina Chremos and
Paul Ben-Itzak, seemed to come together rather more easily, with Gavin Bryars's
luscious score creating a sympathetic world for the
dance to inhabit. While the digital images projected
onto a down-stage scrim didn't really enhance the live
action, neither did they detract from it, simply
existing alongside. The dancers were excellent throughout, performing some
extremely difficult maneuvers with apparent ease, but
the piece was far too long (45 minutes) to run at the
end of the program.
On October 26, the company gave another program which
included two more recent works, "Views on Stage" and
"Views on Stage," created in 2004, begins with a
series of cleanly performed male solos, full of
difficult balances, twists and turns. The choreography
for the women is similarly demanding but set in more
complex formations, including a group section with
some irritatingly unclear timing. A solo for Jennifer
Goggans is fast and twitchy, with the performer's
limbs, torso and head seeming to move in isolation
from each other. Goggans holds it together well, and
it's a strong arrangement when danced in front of the
other women, who are all in slow motion.
Two women and two men make up
a dense quartet which is quite difficult to watch, as
each dancer performs seemingly unrelated movement, as is often the case with Cunningham.
The final section is made up of duets, which feature
sculptural counterbalances and lifts. There is no
illusion here though, the weight of each dancer
apparent as he or she is lifted and lowered. The
closing image is stunning: a lone couple center stage,
perpetually orbiting as the curtain falls.
Ernesto Neto's globular hanging set, one piece of
which sits on stage amongst the dancers, is gorgeously
lit throughout by Josh Johnson, in colors ranging from sunrise hues to a luminous
jade green, all of which are reflected in the white
skirts of James Hall's unisex costumes.
The music, again by Cage, includes ASLSP, a stark
piano piece of sparse plonks and chords performed live
by Wolff, along with Music for Two, performed by Josephine Vains and
Takehisa Kosugi on cello and violin, respectively. As
with many of Cunningham's works, there is little
relationship between the music and the dance. They
"Split Sides," previously reviewed here by Robin Hoffman and Paul Ben-Itzak, is a demonstration of the chance operations used in Cunningham's creative process. Cunningham himself
appeared to preside over the rolling of a die, which
determined the order of the performance elements,
including two sections each of choreography, lighting
cues, decor, music and costumes.
With the dancers in complete silhouette, the lights
came up on Robert Heishman's black and grey backdrop,
eventually revealing the dancers, also attired in
monochrome unitards. Tinkling and scratching, the
Sigur Ros portion of the score was partly pre-recorded
and partly played live by Takehisa Kosugi on a strange
contraption of amplified pointe shoes.
The second section of the work was all in color, with Catherine Yass's pastel pink, purple
and blue decor highlighting the pinks and yellows of
James Hall's tie-dyed, all-in-one costumes.
Radiohead's music was notably muted, with hardly a
beat to speak of, instead creating an atmospheric,
electronic soundscape with occasional distorted voice,
hardly recognizable as one of the world's biggest rock
bands. It worked well with the dance; in
one section where the women repeatedly draped
themselves over their male partners, it appeared as
though they were drowning in the waves of sound.
The choreography for both parts is comparatively easy
to watch, the movement generally more graceful than
that of "Views on Stage" and "eyeSpace," especially in
the closing sequence as the dancers gently negotiated
the stage with their arms raised and their chests
lifted. There are fantastic spatial arrangements and
moments of beauty, particularly a duet performed by Holley
Farmer and Daniel Squire of controlled falls and
balances. Mesmeric stillness, fast footwork and
structural arm shapes are combined in solos, duets and
group sections that are sympathetically lit by James
"Split Sides" is testament that contemporary dance
can be enjoyable without selling out, that Cunningham
does have a lighter side and that chance can be a very
useful tool indeed.