Review – Merce Cunningham Dance Company – CRISES, XOVER and BIPED – Barbican Centre

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Last night my husband and I went to see Merce Cunningham’s dance company perform at the Barbican. I’m a big fan of Merce: I consider him to be the premiere American modern dance choreographer, and I see him every chance I can since the first time I saw them, in Seattle, when they performed “Beach Birds” at Meany Hall. It blew me away with its effortlessness, and I was really impressed by his commitment to making dance a “gesamtkunstwerk” (hoping I’ve spelled that right), with artists contributing sets and costumes and new music being created just for the dance. Too often dance winds up cutting corners (i.e. any art that’s not movement related) to save money, but Merce doesn’t seem to be touched by this budgetary frame of mind. And in keeping with this, his new piece “Xover” (perhaps pronounced “Cross-over,” though I called it /zover/) had a drop by Robert Rauschenberg and a live performance of John Cage’s “Aria and Fontana Mix,” which I hadn’t heard before, but hey, more John Cage! On the other hand, the last time I saw a Cage/Cunningham production, the person I took with me fairly well actively resented me. Our conversation went like this (after about 75 minutes of weird piano stuff and abstract movement):
“So, were you expecting it was going to be like that?”
“Yes.”
“And yet you still bought tickets?”

This time, however, I had someone with me who is familiar with the vocabulary of modern dance and doesn’t shy away at non-standard musical compositions, so I expected to not get a bunch of anger thrown my way after we headed out the door. And we had the good luck of finally finding a good restaurant to eat near the Barbican, in this case the Pho Cafe, which had the tastiest Vietnamese food I’ve yet found in London.

However, what I didn’t expect was to have a gaggle of giggling, uncomfortable teenagers throwing their attitude during the show. The first piece (“Crises”), had easily hatable “fixed” piano music (a recording) and dancers in rather tacky full body leotards in primary colors (red and yellow, one salmon) doing very abstract movements that the kids seemed to find extremely funny. I was really irritated because I found myself unable to concentrate on the show – what I wanted to do is walk over and give a lecture about not talking through the music and perhaps using the “whisper” as we were NOT sitting in front of the television.

For me, I wasn’t really sucked into the dance – I saw it as more of a museum piece, a chance to watch something which helped illustrate how Merce’s dance evolved to where it is today. It was far more lively than similar pieces I saw performed by the Martha Graham dance troupe – I think there’s something about having the choreographer still alive that keeps the dance fresh. And I wondered (I really wanted to ask!) if the dance was actually performed differently now than it was almost 50 years ago, because I do think dance technique has changed and that dancers are more athletic now than they were in the 50s and 60s. But still, I wasn’t emotionally hit by this piece – it was just absorbed and put into my memory as a reference point for understanding this choreographer’s evolution.

The second piece was “Xover,” and, Terpsichore be praised, the pestilence to our left decided to spend the time in the bar. The rest of the audience compensated for their ill manners, however, because they were overwhelmed with laughter by the score. I have to admit, a squeaky balloon and a woman growling and clucking are rather inherently amusing, but the laughter was so loud I was really worried the dancers’ concentration would break. After Crises’ canned music and musty costumes, it was a pleasure to see the dancers in plain white leotards – they were well set off in front of the garish Rauschenberg drop. The drop fit the music, oddly enough – it was sort of a car crash of images, and the music was bunches of random noises (occasionally freaking me out – a couple of the sounds made me think the theater was collapsing). And maybe there is something funny about how serious dance takes itself, to have dancers doing these seemingly unconnected movements while these unconnected noises bounced around the auditorium, but I enjoyed watching what was happening and didn’t want to be distracted by giggles. Grrr.

Finally came “Biped,” the highlight of the evening for me. Oddly enough, as a piece with light projections (which I normally hate), I actually found it working. Maybe it was because they were done on a scrim in front of the stage – the lights defining and redefining the space where the dancers were performing, creating walls and then dissolving them – and I was entranced by how the stage seemed to be shrinking and growing in front of my eyes. At times I felt like the images were actually appearing in between the dancers, and while the scaled drawings of dancers – projected on the scrim so they looked like they were moving to the front of the stage and then back again – were clearly a product of 1990s technology, I still found it enchanting.

This, I felt, was Merce performing at speed, producing a work that fully integrated the resources available to him – wonderful music (live Gavin Bryars as done by Gavin Bryars, kiss me for my luck in living in London!), costumes that enhanced the atmosphere, and great lighting. I think it was maybe five or ten minutes too long, but it was the only piece of the night where I fully checked out from the cares of the world and lost myself in what was going on stage – until the freaking obnoxious highschoolers lost it again when the male dancers came in and put jackets on the women. Oh God, a costume change, how droll. Could someone make sure these kids don’t come back?

At any rate, a decent evening, and I would see Biped again in a heartbeat. In fact, I wish I could go back and see the second set of performances, but given that my sister is in town (as of today), I think I’d be pushing familial relations rather much if I tried to dip her into the waters of modern dance by doing Merce first.

(This review is for a performance seen on October 2nd, 2008. Alternate view posted by The Teenaged Theater Critic here.)

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4 Responses to “Review – Merce Cunningham Dance Company – CRISES, XOVER and BIPED – Barbican Centre”

  1. TheTTCritic Says:

    Thanks for this review, it’s far more illuminating than any of the professional reviews who have entirely failed to explain why any of this is as magical as they seem to suggest. I’m still at a loss at to what the appeal is though. I can buy that some people like Cage’s music (although I cannot see anything produced by chance as composition, especially not genius composition) but the dance didn’t seem to me to have any point, emotion or depth. How can this chance construction of music/design/choreography lead to anything of significance? Where is the intelligence, the meaning. How can something that a computer churned out become anything other than a series of steps? Did you find meaning in the movements? Do you personally believe it’s there? The style doesn’t appeal to me visually but I can see it might to some, but is there more to it than visuals? Forgive me my rather ignorant, child-like questions but I’d really like to know. Oh and I’m “Teenage” not “Teenaged”. I’m not sure where you got that from 🙂

  2. webcowgirl Says:

    Huh, I guess I thought “teenage” was a noun and “teenaged” was an adjective, so I guess I was unconsciously correcting it to what I thought it should be.

    I actually had no idea about the dance moves being created by pure chance. That would explain why Xover wasn’t so interesting. Were these notes in the program or did you see them somewhere else?

    I found the Cage music of the first thing incredibly grating, but Xover’s was pretty fun, though it briefly reminded of the music to Pierrot Lunaire, which made me want to leave the theater.

  3. TheTTCritic Says:

    Ah Pierrot Lunaire… I love Tetley’s choreography but the music does give me a headache (atonal music has never been my favourite but at least it has tones in it). Perhaps we could go Cunningham style and just randomly pick a section of music and see how it looks then. Tetley’s steps to a healthy selection of Rihanna? 🙂 Then we could see how many people call that genius.

  4. Review – Merce Cunningham dance company final London visit (Pond Way, Second Hand, Antic Meet, Roaratorio, RainForest, BIPED) – Barbican Center « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] it was the end, with BIPED, a piece I’d seen three years ago nearly to the day. It was like being taken back to a restaurant we’d discovered together, but in a different […]

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