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Flash Review 3-11: Of Sweat Patterns and Gender Chances
Merce and the Meaning of Chance

By Asimina Chremos
Copyright 2000 Asimina Chremos

CHICAGO--Wow! What a tremendous treat we are having here in Chicago to see the Merce Cunningham Dance Company up close and personal. The sleek, minimalist Museum of Contemporary Art theatre seats only about 300, a far cry from the cavernous houses that I've seen Merce's work in before. First on the program Friday was "Event," one of Merce's collages of old and new material; followed by the much-touted dance/compu/technoid extravaganza "Biped."

"Event" blew me away. The clarity of the dancers' Apollonian forms, the rich vein of invention and creativity that the choreography endlessly mines, the detail, the detail, and the detail. Curving, arching, crunching, side bending, hopping, balancing, and swooping, the dancers in their solid-color unitards took on a multitude of forms. To my post-modern eye, the sparse use of momentum, the outside-in approach to breath rhythms, the not-Body-Mind-Centering-not-Contact Improvisation-not-"release technique" movements looked dated and icon-like against the space. I deeply appreciated a duet of winglike arms by two women in pale blue. It was all unison and almost unison with eighth of turn changes in space, and killer promenades in a la seconde.

The space age '50s lived and breathed before me, I thought of kidney-shaped coffee tables and idiosyncratic, aerodynamic household appliances. The abstraction was all so serious at first, with the random sounds of the company musicians (Loren Kiyoshi Dempster, Takehisa Kosugi, Jim O'Rourke) noising and silencing along. I wondered how the young jazz and ballet dancers sitting near me were experiencing this. As I enjoyed a particularly random and spastic series of jumps, the deep humor of the work began to sink in. The absolute focus and dedication, the years of practice to hone the skills, the hours of rehearsal: the absolute absurdity. So human, so true, so beautiful.

The dancers' bodies in this type of movement become so much about shape and surface. I was close enough to the performance to take note of things like sweat patterns on costumes and facial expressions of the performers. I liked watching the ones best whose faces emanated the same radiant clarity as their bodies. I pondered the human/nonhuman ethos of the Cunningham vision.

The highlight of the evening came early for me during this "Event." I got goose pimples watching Maydelle Fason and Daniel Squire perform a stunning, fiery duet I learned was from the video-dance "Points in Space." Full of off-kilter partnering, thrilling shifts and wild angles, I kept having wide awake flashbacks to duet moments from Balanchine's "Four Temperaments," especially the Sanguinic pas de deux. Twice, Daniel reached his arm directly through the space under Maydelle's arms as Maydelle arched her fluid spine. This was a deliciously erotic moment among the million other yummy moments of natural, animal, anatomical, mechanical, and spiritual splendors during the evening.

Which leads me to this little thought about chance operations and gender. I can't help taking this opportunity to raise a debate I have been hearing about lately. How does Merce decide who lifts who in partnering sequences? Clearly he does not leave this up to chance. In terms of who lifts who and how, to my sensibility, the work pretty much toes a heterosexist line. Because we live in a heterosexist world, I feel this is sort of invisible and allows the work to stay "neutral" and apolitical. I feel petty bringing this up in the face of such genius, but it is one of the ways that Merce's work does not seem to live up to it's Chance Operations Credo. I heard an archived John Cage on the radio last year saying that he liked to use chance because it allows him to flow with a set larger than that which he himself comprises. What about the set of male dancers always supporting/displaying women dancers? Again, I ponder the human/nonhuman ethos of the Cunningham vision.

There has been a lot of hoopla in the press about "Biped" and it's technological wonderment, as the dance includes digital projection (on a scrim) of an animation technology called "motion capture." Perhaps I was sitting too close to the stage to get the full effect. I was not as moved by the projections, the changing light and dark squares on the floor, and the lines of light moving around the space as I was by the gorgeous dancing and the intricate choreography of swirling angels. However, one of my friends in the audience was deeply affected by the nondance imagery; at one point she said she felt a large figure projected on the scrim was like God dancing with the dancers.

(Editor's note: For more on Merce, see Flash Review 2, 3-2: Merce, Dancing.)

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