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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 the bus.

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 choreography.

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 "Split Sides."


"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 simply co-exist.

"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 F. Ingalls.

"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.

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