The Merce Cunningham Dance Company capped its extensive week-long residency at the Mondavi Center with two nights of rich, historical, stunning work last weekend.
At 89, Merce Cunningham is truly a living legend of modern dance. In the 60s Cunningham was a pioneer in shifting the intent of modern dance from meaning to movement. In other words, he wanted to do away with the trappings of symbolic narrative (think: Martha Graham) and focus solely on physical human action. In doing this, he wanted dance to be able to represent nothing and everything - to be determined by the audience. He developed a movement technique specifically focused on the lines and curves in the human body; he rejected traditional compositional forms (A-B-A); he used chance procedures to drive the order of his compositions (to keep things random and free of meaning); and he collaborated with artists who shared his worldview (Cage, Rauschenberg). Forty years later, he still finds ways to mine these ideas to create provocative work.
On Friday, the company opened with MinEvent with the Kronos Quartet (2008). Don’t let that 2008 fool you: this is old school Cunningham. A MinEvent is a piece created specifically for a “particular performance and place” but consists entirely of older material. The newness comes in the arrangement of the activities. The Kronos Quartet, sprinkled strategically in the audience, played John Cage’s equally non-sequitur Thirty Pieces for String Quartet. The music is “a series of very short contrasting solos for each instrument, unrelated to the other instruments’ parts.” The random collage of movement and sound strips both of any meaning and allows the audience to simply view the lines, shapes and formations in space. A duet need not represent a relationship, just the intermingling of two bodies on stage. The interpretation is up to each member of the audience.
Split Sides (2003)begins with a bit of tongue-in-cheek pomp and circumstance. An announcer introduces five VIPs who, in turn, roll some dice to determine the order of the music (Radiohead before Sigur Rós); the dance sequence (A before B); the costumes (color before black and white); the décor (Catherine Yaas before Robert Heishman) and the lighting cues (300 before 200). If you do the math, there are 2^5 or 32 possible combinations for this dance.
Cunningham has been using procedures of chance to compose his work for years. He has also experimented with changing up scenic elements and music on the night of the performance for years. The fact that he highlights and theatricalizes these choices so intentionally now is what interests me. Perhaps he wants to unveil his intentions, perhaps he wants to educate his audience, perhaps after all these years he does actually care whether or not people “get” his work.
Legend has it that in his attempt to appeal more to a younger generation, Cunningham approached both Radiohead and Sigur Rós, thinking one would decline. When they both accepted, he ordered two 20-minute works instead of one 40-minute work, then decided to do the same for the other elements. And thus, the piece was born. In any case, the dice rolling ceremony and the involvement of Radiohead and Sigur Rós certainly make the piece more accessible to a younger generation of dance viewers who are more removed from the tradition Cunningham was trying to break with in the 60s.
The hip bands, it seems, composed their pieces with almost too much reverence to Merce. They departed from their signature voices to create works which are beat-less, lyric-less and have a fair amount of sound experimentation to them. They certainly did their homework, but it’s almost as if they created something that they thought Merce would like (something in the spirit of Cage). I, for one, would be more interested in seeing Cunningham’s work juxtaposed with some of their less consciously composed works.
The dance, which Cunningham creates without regard to how it will fit the music, again highlights the superb technique of the dancers who, with machine-like precision carve out lines in space as they tilt, balance, and leap with remarkable artistry.
Biped (1999), which opened the Saturday performance, was, for me, the highlight of both shows. Projections of vertical and horizontal lines, frame, shape and enliven the space, while digital images of dancers (created through the motion capture animation process) complement and enrich the movement of the live dancers. The motion capture images are simple and stark – sometimes a body is represented with skeletal trace lines, sometimes as lively dots (this was no LOTR Gollum-like situation), but remarkably these abstracted images accurately portray the essence of Cunningham’s vocabulary and allow us to experience it from various perspectives. They put us over, under, above, and inside the action, and their sheer size viscerally envelop us in the movement.
At the start of eyeSpace (2006), a head pops out of the orchestra pit with instructions to “take out your iPods” (pre-loaded with 5 songs by Mikel Rouse), “set them to shuffle,” and “press ‘play’…. ‘NOW!’” My date had a very hard time with this concept. “Why do we have to have our own iPods? Why don’t they just play the music?” After trying to explain Cunningham’s abstract ideas of “randomness,” “chance,” and “personal experience,” I think the epiphany came when I likened the experience to playing Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” to The Wizard of Oz (being sure to hit "play" on the third roar of the MGM lion). These are two works of art that were created entirely independently of each other, but have some sublime synchronicity when experienced together. The meaning was “found” and created by those first stoners who happened to play their favorite anthem while Dorothy was singing about rainbows. Here Cunningham challenges us to see synchronicities between the music and the movement, and to know that they are entirely invented in our mind.
The dance, itself, has the most playful air of all those on the program. The dancers seem to romp about in groups and in duets - almost breaking their stoic gaze every now and then. It’s as if they can’t help but reveal that they are truly taking pleasure in what they are doing – dancing with each other. Shhh don’t tell Merce.