Flashback, 11-8: Instances of climax
Merce, in rare film and video and in a new 'Event'
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002, 2010
(Tomorrow through Saturday at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt in Paris, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company renews its ongoing love affair with France for one of the last times, with the revival of the evening-length 1983 "Roaratorio," set with John Cage's music and never before seen in Paris. The following Flash of the city's celebration of the company's 50th anniversary was first published on August 13, 2002.)
PARIS -- Is it possible for one choreographer to exhilarate and exasperate you -- er, me -- in the course of two days? If the choreographer is Merce Cunningham, aided and abetted by John Cage, David Tudor, and Takehisa Kosugi, absolutely! In celebration of the Merce Cunningham Company's 50th anniversary, the Paris Quartier d'Ete festival Saturday co-presented, with the Cinematheque de la Danse and the Institut National de l'Audiovisual, an evening of vintage Cunningham and Cage film and video at the Palais de Chaillot. The festivities moved last night to the Palais Royal, where they'll continue through Wednesday with the revival of "How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run," previously reviewed here by Chris Dohse, and "Event for the Palais Royal," suffered through by moi last night.
But let's start with the good stuff.
Before the soiree Saturday, I was beginning to think that I was burned out, my critical faculties atrophied to mere descriptive ability. "They moved their arms up and down. A man and two women danced together before they left. It was pwetty." But "Variations V" and "Suite for Two," both dating from the 1960s, assured me that it was the dance I'd been seeing lately which was less than stimulating.
"Suite for Two," a 26-minute Universal Video, was made in 1961, the year I was born -- and, man, what a world to be born into! Merce, Carolyn Brown, and (in tuxedos!) composer-musicians John Cage and David Tudor, together with an uncredited director, bring us back to a time when Modern Dance and its music were pure Modern Art. About to be eclipsed by the non-virtuosic pedestrianism of Judson, Merce here presented dancers and musicians who by their obvious virtuosity could have been dancing ballet and playing symphony halls, but who had chosen Modern Dance as the expression of their gifts.
Brown perches atop a mobile ladder to begin the piece, pure sixties chic mod beauty in her long coiffured hair, sleeveless white blouse, and black tights, and it's virtuosic. Cunningham rolls a trundle along, and it's virtuosic. One of the musician composers is wheeled under the piano and begins to bang it, and it's virtuosic. He scales the ladder and resets a clock, again and again, and it's riveting. Cage grunts or whistles or bangs the piano top shut, and it's high art.
Indeed, the black and white recording has the flavor of the late '50s, early '60s, Omnibus live studio performances that one could find back then even on commercial television. Albeit an abstract dance, "Suite for Two" is organized thematically into sections broken up by elegant titles adorned with the figures of the two dancers and the two musician-composers, with titles like "A Meander."
A colleague observed that the performers all looked so straight; I agree and I think it accounts in part for what I liked: What we're seeing here is not Modern Dance and music that are anti-performative, or ugly, or self-pitying. The excitement that people must have felt going to these performances at the time, to see Modern Art synthesized in a moving art, is palpable.
"Suite for Two" is a rare gem indeed. "I wasn't even aware it was taken," Cunningham insisted, noting that at the time it must have been shot, "The Pope died, and everything changed." A colleague who's been a part of the NYC dance scene for a while said she was not familiar with this video; I'd urge its presentation by one of the New York-based dance film organizations.
"Variations V," filmed in 1966 by Stan Van Der Beek for Hamburg television, is a synthesis too, reminding us that film, montage, and standing and hidden mikes that could be set off by dancers are nothing new.
"There were three elements of technology" involved in this piece as recorded, Cunningham remembered in remarks before the soiree, which also celebrated the 20th anniversary of Cinematheque de la Danse, to which Merce made sure to give a "Cheers."
"We danced around microphone poles which had wires around the stage around which we had to balance," he explained. "Each time we came within proximity of a mic, there was the possibility of making a sound." There was also a huge "artificial plant, with mics hidden in its branches. Every time Carolyn Brown changed the branches, there was the possibility of a sound. (And) at the end of the piece I road a bicycle, again (creating) the possibility of sound -- the bike contained a mic in its wheel. At rehearsal, I found there was a pole I could hold onto at the exit. I thought it was strong, so that I could hold on and the bike would keep going."
Because this bit of acrobatics was supposed to come at the blackout, the pole was wrapped with black and yellow plastic to make it easier to see -- but, as it turned out, harder to grasp. "I fell to the ground," Merce recalled, "and I couldn't go on. But there was a performance the next day, so I had to go on." The film medium added possibilities to this particular performance that weren't possible in its live performance, Merce said. "I don't remember much about it, it was so complicated."
Considered in a current landscape where the execution of mundane tasks in post-mod dance or performance art often comes off as, well, mundane, it was amazing how thrilling it was to watch Merce and Brown simply disassemble the plant and put it back together again; or Gus Solomons place an outrageous headpiece on another woman dancer. I think it was that it was all so serious; they were engaged, and so it followed that we were. Perhaps what's missing in the attempts of a younger generation of choreographers to do the same is that they don't always project that they believe in the tasks. They seem to be mocking what they're doing at the same time they're expecting us to pay attention to it.
But this commitment disparity isn't the only reason younger dancemakers should watch films and videos like "Variations V." The use of montage and other film and video images, on screens and overlaid on the dancers, reminded me not only that multi-media isn't new, but that current practitioners aren't doing much new with it. The images selected were anything but random; scenes from what looked like "Born Yesterday," with Judy Holliday, were in the loop, as were TWA and PanAm jets -- remember, this was the dawn of the jet age -- in flight. I also liked the spinning multiple reel-to-reel decks, operated by Cage and, I think, Tudor, in suits and ties.
The whole -- tape deckoligists Cage and Tudor, films projected on screens and over the dancers, the high technical facility of the dancers, and Cunningham's geometry-- gave the spectacle the air of a grand experiment. Which, of course, it was.
A joy here too, for newbies like me, was to see the beautiful (I use that word sparingly, but it's the best one here) and young Gus Solomons, who in bearing anyway is here a match for Merce.
Merce being Merce, most film and video treatments that I've seen seem to vie with their subject for far-outness. In my experience anyway, the actual straightforward documentary is rare. So particularly educative was "Merce Cunningham & Co." shot by Benoit Jacquot and Herve Gauville in 1982 for Belgian television.
Just as in the way they began the film with an overhead of NYC, zooming in on the company's Westbeth headquarters and studio, reveals a fascination with NYC, the directors' curiosity about the process of teaching and learning a dance is also apparent in a video shot entirely on Bethune Street. So, much more naturally than the recent Violette Verdy film whose core was her coaching of several couples, this 44-minute video includes long segments -- most notably one with Susan Emery -- of the 63-year-old Merce, svelte in white long-sleeve jersey and tight red sweats, creating and setting dances. In a private session with Emery, teacher/choreographer and dancer/student traverse the stage laterally, he assuring her that they'll stop after each phrase. As they cross, he is both her partner, lifting and otherwise supporting her, and her instructor in nuance and phrasing.
This documentary also includes some illuminating responses from Merce to the filmmakers' questions. Merce responds in French, but him not being French I could actually understand what he said. After Merce has been trying to teach the group a new sequence, Alan Good steps forward to say how he understands it. Merce nods and as Good returns to coach the rest of the dancers, Merce tells the interviewer in French, "If one dancer understands it, I understand that it is possible. And I continue." There's also this gem: "I search; sometimes I find." And: "Each instant is interesting; each instant is a possible climax."
I guess that's what I found excruciating about Event for Palais Royal (seen last night), and indeed what I've found challenging about the three or four MC Events I've now seen: There is no climax and no dramatic arc to which one can hang on. The Event dances don't seem to go anywhere. Yes, I know, this is on purpose, but that doesn't mean I have to like it! Individual segments were attractive, such as one in which several dancers take turns performing solos, duets, or trios while the rest sit on either side of them watching as if arrayed around a campfire. But even though I liked these people -- particularly the ever-ebullient, lustrous and luminous Jeannie Steele and the more quietly gripping Robert Swinston -- I still felt trapped like a character in Sartre's "No Exit."
Swinston also figures centrally in the revived "How to Pass, Run, Kick and Fall," which, as assistant to the choreographer, he helped Cunningham and Brown reconstruct. I'm assuming that Merce played the central character when the piece premiered in 1965, and it's a curio to watch Swinston evoke the quirkiness of Merce -- by sheer dint of doing his dance -- without sacrificing his own soul. Centered a la Swinston at his entrance, which begins the piece (seemlessly last night, the "Event" flowing right into it), as it progresses he becomes more flitty a la Merce, particularly in a segment where he nervously flexes his fingers apart from the group. But he's atypically (for Swinston) speedy throughout; that this jars a bit reminds one that despite that Merce's choreography often makes the dancers seem like neurons bouncing off each other, the dancers' personalities always out.
One more note on something the films brought out before we list those dancers for you: I could see how Merce's vocabulary extended what Martha started. Where she broke the vertebrae and folded the body at the gut, he then took both the expanded movement possibilities this presented and the fine planes of ballet and expanded the abstractive possibilities of dance as a Modern Art.
The possibilities for abstract music have expanded to in the fifty-years since Cage began scoring Merce's piece. But you wouldn't know it from what Takehisa Kosugi and Christian Marclay produced for this "Event." One of the reasons I was fidgeting in my seat last night, besides that my neighbor was half in it and refused to budge, was that the score composed and played by Kosugi and Marclay was acerbic without offering much new aesthetically. I am willing for my ears to be hurt if my brain is being stimulated, but that wasn't happening. Cage worked with noise but he did not produce cacophony. Except when Kosugi was simply playing his sonorous violin or when they opted for quiet, last night's soundscape was pretty run of the mill. (Marclay's mixing was nothing 20-year-old turntable artists haven't been doing for twenty years.)
The miracle was that whatever the composer-musicians gave them, the dancers last night were on it. In addition to those already mentioned, they were, in the "Event": Cedric Andrieux, Jonah Nokaer, Lisa Boudreau, Ashley Chen, Paige Cunningham, Holley Farmer, Jennifer Goggans, Mandy Kirschner, Koji Mizuta, Daniel Roberts, Daniel Squire, and Derry Swan. "How to...." featured Bokaer, Boudreau, Cunningham, Farmer, Jean Freebury, Roberts, Squire, Steele, and Swinston. The deep sea known as Cheryl Therrien was unfortunately nowhere to be seen.
In the film and video soiree, "Variations V," 1966, featured, in addition to Brown, Cunningham, and Solomons, Barbara Lloyd, Sandra Neels, Albert Reid, and Peter Saul. (Neels, Reid, Solomons, Jeff Slayton and Valda Setterfield also contributed to the reconstruction of "How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run" by sharing their recollections of the dance.)
Dancers filmed in the 1982 documentary "Merce Cunningham & Co.," produced by INA, included, in addition to Cunningham, Emery, and Good, Ellen Cornfield, Lise Freedman, Neil Greenberg, and Swinston. (It was also a nice treat to see this last in his Cunningham infancy.)
PS: In a tres gentile gesture, the Cunningham evening at the Palais de Chaillot, a home to the Cinematheque Francaise, opened with a curio to cherish: a Sol Hurok-produced 15-minute film of Carmen Amaya, the greatest Flamenco dancer ever. Seeing Amaya dance in an elegant nightclub accompanied by a full orchestra, one was reminded that Flamenco was not always ghettoized as "ethnic dance" but once occupied center stage as concert dance. Beholding her dance in pants was a reminder that as beautiful as this dance can be -- on men and women -- it is not about adornment but virtuosity. And an interlude featuring the great Flamenco guitarist Sabicas, without the dancing, reminded of the double-threat offered by Flamenco. The Cinematheque de la Danse opened the Cunningham soiree with this treasure as an anniversary gift.