Posts Tagged ‘Merce Cunningham Dance Company’

Review – Merce Cunningham dance company final London visit (Pond Way, Second Hand, Antic Meet, Roaratorio, RainForest, BIPED) – Barbican Center

October 12, 2011

Summer, love, happened so fast … Summer love, thought it would last ….

It all started in 1996, when I saw Beach Birds at Seattle’s Meany Hall. I was amazed by the beautiful movement on stage, so much so that I’ve tried to catch his dance company whenever they were in town (and finances allowed). I loved so much being able to see works by someone who’d been a genius for so long they were just going wherever their muse took them, and doing it beautifully. It was unquestionably the strongest feeling I’ve ever had of “being in the presence of a master” in all of the dance I’ve ever seen (though at the time I was still new to modern dance). I felt lucky to have joined him so late but to still be able to go along for part of the glorious, glorious ride.

But Merce was already old when I saw this piece performed, and I knew our affair could not last. Sadly, he broke it off in 2009, leaving me a tiny bit heartbroken but knowing we’d both given it our all. Expecting it to be the last goodbye, I made it to see “Nearly Ninety” in October 2010 and left feeling like I’d just gotten a hand scribbled note (folded somewhat elaborately) – it seemed tossed off for fun and not really thought out. And it left me cold. Merce, Merce, was this really it?

Thankfully his company decided to do a proper farewell tour, which gave me an opportunity to end it all on a high note. I dithered for months over whether or not I was going to have to go to New York to get my last fix, but a London program was announced at last, and it was an embarrassment of riches: six dances, only one of which I had seen before. I had booked a flight to Venice for the first night, but convinced myself that rather than see the Bienale, what I really wanted was one last romantic weekend with the man I loved before it was really and truly over; a chance for us to laugh and surprise each other and really revel in how good it was between us. And, well, it was all just a bit expensive, but I consoled myself by remembering how much a Venice hotel room for one was going to run and convinced myself that by staying for Merce I was really saving money in the end.

The first program opened with “Pond Way” (1998), a glorious gesamtkunstwerk with a Lichtenstein backdrop that for me evoked sand dunes; the dancers dressed in flowing white tops and harem pants; and the most fantastic Brian Eno music accompanied it all. For me, the whole thing felt like watching images appear through a mirage, solidify, then fade away. I saw Bedouins, camels, palm trees, belly dancers, cranes – the mental miasma of a million Attenborough specials rising through my subconscious to provide meaning to the forms in front of me. And, of course, the music was a dream for an Eno fan like me. The whole thing was fabulous.

Next up was “Second Hand” (1970), which had the dancers costumed in colorful, crayon-like shirts (kind of American-apparel-esque). There seemed to be a central conflict between an older dancer, who to me looked like a Merce Cunningham stand in, who kept trying to get the attention of one of the young women of the dance troop. In my mind, the piece became “Captain Kirk Can’t Get a Date” and I wasn’t able to take it seriously. (The wide collars and deep neckline of the men’s shirts just made it too ’70s comical for me.)

Our final piece of opening night was “Antic Meet” (1958), which was actually MEANT to be funny. It had a very uncompromising John Cage score of fists on piano and other strange noises that brought to mind the Trockadero’s “Patterns in Space” with its very, very serious musicians popping bubble wrap. Only, instead of being grim, we had jolly dancers on stage: one carrying a chair strapped to his back, another appearing and disappearing behind doors, a third fighting for a very long time with a sweater that had four arms and no obvious place for a head. So while the whole thing would have been incredibly depressing if it had been done with no self-awareness, instead Merce for me showed a whole ‘nother side of his personality: that he could let himself be funny and that sometimes all of this freaky modern dancing is, really, just comic. I’d never seen a modern dance show where people were just able to laugh; and, I think for most of the people in the audience, it was an entirely new feeling and one that was a great relief – so many things that they’d wanted to laugh about for ages and finally they were given license to go! And, all things considered, the score was great. Really, it was an awesome evening, and it alone would have satisfied me as the end to my big love affair with Merce.

That said, the tension was high as the end drew nearer, and I’m afraid I may have had one cider too many (that is, one) before going to “Roaratorio.” I loved Cage’s score for this piece, a mix of himself reading Finnegan’s Wake (which I took to be Ulysses as I sat there, programless – Joyce’s voice is very identifiable even though I haven’t finished even one of his books), sound recording which seemed to illustrate the text, and bits of traditional Irish music all jumbled up in a very Cage way. The whole thing was completely appreciable as a concert event. That said, the action on stage – typical abstract Merce movement but with more smiling than usual and rather a lot of traditional Irish dancing leavened in (like butter in a biscuit) – didn’t do anything for me. In fact, I was having a bit of a hard time not nodding off, and my brain did actually go into full free-association mode (perhaps not inappropriately given the source material). Watching the dancers change clothes and move the chairs on stage around wasn’t providing me with enough to hang my brain on. It was only sixty minutes, but this felt like the night at the bar where I sat telling Merce’s best friend how much I was going to miss him while not getting a whole lot of sympathy.

I had some time away after this, a whole day to sit and think about the good times. And then we had our very last date together ever, for RainForest (1968) and Biped (1999). RainForest just killed me: with Andy Warhol’s forty or so big, silver, mylar pillow-shaped balloons (the “set”) barely keeping contact with the ground (and floating off into the audience AND the orchestra pit, forcing the conducter to THWAP them back out), the whole thing became a giant, Pop-art comedy dance, complete with an exploded set piece (something I’d really never seen before, a sad crumpled bit of mylar sitting on the stage like a gazelle on the Serengeti plains). The dance seemed just as much designed to act as if the pillows weren’t there as to acknowledge them by forcefully kicking them away as the performers attempted to do “the moevement” in the exact planes designated. It seemed as much an exercise in the intersection of movement and art as it was a dance, and I had to imagine Andy Warhol being very satisfied with the effect. For me, it was like me and Merce doing one of those young lovers on the beach montages, as we ran around kicking sand, splashing around, and giggling like kids, all light and laughs and joy and lots of salty, ionized air amping up the energy.

Then 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 season, so the menu had changed a bit but it was all still so tasty and flavored with the memories of us together. I remember struggling with the animations before, but (especially seen right after a matinee of Wayne McGregor’s Limen) I had new appreciation for the overall use of light, as dancers appeared and disappeared at the back of the stage, as the floor changed colors beneath them, as they seemed to dance with the animated projections of their own bodies. I could see that these drawings were quite perfectly drawn from their own bodies doing the moves that Merce had created, and I thought, look, he has gone, and I will never see these dances again, but he lived long enough to come into technologies that could really and truly help preserve his legacy, as well as living long enough to discover a million more ways he could use these advances to just push the dance forward as an artist. We held hands tightly as the dancers, teary eyed, took one bow after another to a room full of people who knew they’d never see them dancing together again. But Merce and I had always known it would have to come to an end; thankfully, we had one last weekend to make sure the last of our time together would leave memories for (and of) a lifetime.

(This reminiscence is for a series of performances that took place from October 5 through 8th, 2011. If you are feeling particularly desolate, they are continuing to tour until the end of the year and will be in Paris in the middle of December.)

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

October 2, 2008

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.)