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Flash Review, 4-30: Lights! Sets! Scrims! Dance?
Degrees of Separation: Merce at 90

By Philip W. Sandstrom
Copyright 2009 Philip W. Sandstrom

NEW YORK -- Too much set and too many projections made it hard to concentrate on the dance in the premiere of Merce Cunningham's "Nearly Ninety" by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, April 16 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Howard Gilman Opera House. The frustrating evening began with rear-projected shadows of musicians, perched upon a scaffold-like structure, as viewed through a translucent backdrop. Accompanied by front projections and colored light, the musicians from Sonic Youth (Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, and Steve Shelley), along with John Paul Jones and Takehisa Kosugi bombarded us with drums and various supplementary percussion sounds. Something about the movement of light, shadow, and sound presented the look and feel of a lunar landing vehicle, or at least what I would imagine its movie version would look and sound like. No dancers. Just light, set, and sound.

After enduring this visual and aural display for far too long, we finally had the monotony broken by the couples Rashaun Mitchell and Andrea Weber and Melissa Toogood and Brandon Collwes, performing unnaturally slow and supportive weight-sharing male/female duets. These enjoyably refined and engaging minimal movements and patterns, requiring exquisite control -- hallmarks of Cunningham's work -- were a welcome relief from the overblown ostentatious beginning. As the dance progressed, the work, riveting in nature, began to resemble, in my active imagination, astronauts on an existential space walk. As more dancers entered the stage they appeared to divide by function into the precise slow movers and the pizzicato darters.

Unfortunately, the visuals soon overwhelmed the dance. The 20-foot-tall set, a grand piece of skeletal architecture that housed the musicians, was positioned upstage of a translucent backdrop. This drop was back lit with continually shifting multi-colored lights that reflected off of the metallic set and cast reflections, shadows, and color blobs. It is in front of this grand setting that the dance was staged. To further complicate the visual environment, this same backdrop doubled as a projection surface that swarmed with water and smoke images that seemed to come right out of Joshua White's playbook, mesmerizing the eye, playing with the mind, and skewing my sense of perception.

The juxtaposition of the dancers in front of this hallucinogenic imagery dwarfed the choreography. No matter how clear and bright the light that designer Brian McDevitt poured upon the dancers, they were overwhelmed. Act I became an exercise for my central vision receptors as I tried to keep my eye on the dancers and appreciate the choreography. Here was hardcore Cunningham work presented by some of the most skilled dancers in the world being upstaged by rock and roll theatrics; what a shame.

All of the audience was not as distressed as I was; to some, the movement seemed simple and easy. I know this because I talked to a few of the phone-message-checking audience members at intermission and after the show. They were unaware of the degree of difficulty, the level of concentration, and the years of hard work necessary to perform Cunningham. The point of this observation is that the need for the production values to focus our attention on the ephemeral nature of the dance and the performance of the dancers is paramount. Knowing that the dance was created on the dancers without the intrusions of music, set, and projections only increased my annoyance level at these distractions.

Somewhere halfway through the first act, the translucent screen was raised out of sight, revealing a more transparent scrim, which now only marginally hid the scaffold-like structure. In this revelation, the set began to lose a touch of its King Kong aspect, while taking on the look of the skeletal frame of Apollo 12's lunar lander.

Throughout the first act, in spite of the non-dance distractions which made it a challenge to lock one's vision on the dancers, the incandescence of Holley Farmer's performance blazed its way past the scenic obfuscations. Farmer, a favorite of critics and fans who is leaving the company along with the equally extraordinary veterans Daniel Squire and Koji Mizuta, will surely be missed. But Merce's loss is Twyla's gain; the Dance Insider has learned that Farmer will work with Tharp this summer on her newest creation-in-progress.

During the intermission, the scrim was removed and we were treated to the unfettered sight of the behemoth "starship" of a set, as 20 stage hands struggled to rotate it a mere 90 degrees. Is this monstrosity really going on tour? (Among other stops, "Merce at Ninety" will be presented by Berkeley's Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall next March.)

Act II was choreographically distinguished by a surprising abundance of entrances and exits, with the dancers often emerging from upstage left and disappearing downstage right. Quick movements and overhead lifts of a near-romantic nature provided an enervating experience, which held its own in relationship to the percussive music and the now somewhat muted projections. Nearly every dancer was showcased with a solo, with the exception of -- unsurprisingly -- Farmer and Squire. I guess there's no need to create solos for those with one foot out the door.

As the set became a lookout station for the brightly lit Julie Cunningham, it slowly became a contributory element, albeit belatedly, to the dance. Cunningham often appeared ready to dive off her scenic perch 12 feet into the air, as she arched and straightened like Greg Louganis preparing for the double back flip.

The dance ended abruptly with a quartet performed by Cunningham, Squire, Toogood, and Mitchell as the lights suddenly brightened and then went to black.

The evening was completed by a warm and wonderful tribute to Merce Cunningham on his 90th birthday, including the audience's singing "Happy Birthday." Unfortunately, Mr. Cunningham was left alone seated in his wheelchair downstage center during the proceedings. It would have felt more appropriate if his dancers surrounded him during this momentous occasion.

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