Posts Tagged ‘merce cunningham’

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 – Birmingham Royal Ballet’s “Pomp and Circumstances” (Serenade/Balanchine, Enigma Variations/Ashton, ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Cafe/Bintley) – London Coliseum

April 15, 2009

Last night W (“Parsingphase”) and I went to the London Coliseum to see the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s “Pomp and Circumstances” program, part of the Spring Dance at the London Coliseum series.

My interest in this was due to 1) really enjoying my previous viewings of this groups’ work (they are a strong notch above English National Ballet and, as near as I can tell, the second best ballet group in England) and 2) the pictures for the Penguin Cafe piece were really intriguing.

I was fascinated by the idea of a ballet featuring zebras. Really, how would it work? Would it be like Merce Cunningham’s “Beach Birds,” or would it be (shudder) more like the “Tales of Beatrix Potter?” It had a look of whimsy (tempered with high artistic skill) that I really appreciated – even though I realized in some eyes the whole thing could come off like a giant Furry fantasy ballet. (But, you know, perhaps best not to go down that path!)

I faffed and faffed about buying tickets, hoping I could get a half price deal and get seats on the floor, but the gods weren’t with me – the deal I saw was for Sylvia, and when I looked at ENO and Sadler’s Wells sites to figure out what seats were available, it in fact looked like it was nearly sold out! I decided that rather risking not going, it was best to get some sort of seat bought, and so I settled on £20 seats in the next to last row of the Coliseum’s upper balcony (aided pricewise by Sadler’s Well’s 20% multibuy discount – I bought seats for Northern Ballet at the same time to get that deal).

As it turns out this was not a bad decision – while the show certainly wasn’t sold out (at least in the balcony), it did NOT come up on the TKTS offerings for the day (though I note it’s there today). Perhaps our balcony seats were a bit warm, but the view was unobstructed, and other than the damage to my knees from the ridiculously narrow space between the edge of my seat and the back of the next chair (a problem for all but the last row of the second balcony), it was most decidedly worth £20, especially since all of the music was done live (yay!).

The first piece was Balanchine’s “Serenade,” which premiered in 1935 and was the first piece he choreographed on American ballerinas. It did show signs of age – some of the movements looked like they’d been lifted right from Martha Graham (right arm straight out Hi-YAH!), and a few of the group bits had a heavy feel of Busby Berkeley – but it was still such a pleasure to watch. Really, his 70 year old ballets look so much fresher than many choreographers’ works from the seventies and sixties. The bit with the five women knotting and unknotting themselves with each other seemed to have almost a mathematic quality to it, and the “menage a trois” scene (rather a more appropriate name that “pas de trois” given what appeared to be the subject matter) had real dramatic tension in it. I didn’t feel like the corps of BRB was as good in this piece as Pacific Northwest Ballet was when I saw them do it some years back – there’s just something about the discipline in the way they hold their arms, and the incredible strength of the women’s torsos, that wasn’t happening for BRB – but the power of Balanchine carried me through (and they were certainly good enough to make it work, just not 100%).

“Enigma Variations,” as choreographed by Frederick Ashton to the music of Elgar, summary: Ashton ain’t for me. I have seen several of his ballets and they just utterly failt to grab me. The program went on about his skill at capturing character through dance – well, he does, that’s great, but there’s more to ballet that just putting some characters on stage and having them “express” themselves. I want to see great movement, I want to be swept away and amazed, and cutesy vignettes (a la his “Tales of Beatrix Potter“) just don’t cut the mustard. Jerome Robinson was his contemporary and managed both the dance and the character, so it’s not like it’s something that wasn’t happening at the time or can’t be done. I did enjoy the pas de cinq (as it were) with the four townspeople dancing around the old man (David Morse, whom they’d imprisoned in a hoop), but I just wasn’t convinced in the least by this dance, which suffered immensely by being placed next to a Balanchine. I am going to either have to have someone seriously explain to me why Ashton is so great (and change my experience of watching him) or just give up on seeing his work altogether and write it off to just not getting English tastes in ballet.

I liked Julia Trevelyan Oman’s design – though, in some ways, the extremely detailed costuming and set rather weighed the piece down in the very way that Balanchine’s “leotard ballets” were utterly freed to just be dance by having nothing else to them but the dancers and the music. And, geez, maybe all of those years of watching PNB perform Balanchine have just informed my tastes in a way I can’t overcome anymore than I can warm up to feathered hair or bell bottom jeans. I like plotless dances in the same way I like vanilla ice cream, plain cheese pizzas, and undecorated sterling flatware – strip all of the nonsense away and you can really see what something is made of and what kind of quality it is.

Enough grousing. The final piece of the night, David Bintley’s “‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Cafe,” choreographed to music of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, wound up the program in high style. I had great fears that it would be insufferably horrid, that it would get nauseatingly cutesy (due to having humans dressed as animals) or irritatingly preachy (with its underlying environmental message). Somehow, it avoided either of these big wide pitfalls and was both entertaining and fun to watch – with good music. Each of the pieces had an animal as its center, with dancing done in a particular style that the choreographer had taken a shine to – the Utah “Longhorn Ram” (rather a comic name as it was clearly a she-sheep rather than a ram, and a “bighorn” as “longhorns” are a type of cow!) with Angela Paul as a glamorous ’30s Hollywood starlet dancing with her tuxedoed (human) partners, the Texas Kangaroo Rat (Christopher Larsen) a yee-hawing country bumpkin, the Southern Cape Zebra (Chi Cao per the Teenage Theatre Critic) a bit of a chanting tribal shaman dancing amidst fashion models.

I realized, while watching this, that it’s a horrible thing to have a dancer perform with a mask on. It reduces our ability to see what emotion they are experiencing, and while they should be able to express themselves quite competently with their bodies – well, as humans, we’re programmed to look for the face for clues to what’s going on in the head. And I began to wonder, as I watched the Texas Kangaroo Rat, if maybe having a mask on puts a dancer at a serious disadvantage, not just in terms of movement and weight, but in terms of their ability to connect with the audience. I felt like Mr. Larsen was maybe not feeling as “there” as he could of because of his own restriction in seeing the audience, as if perhaps wearing a mask made him feel like it was not really “him” performing the role, and that he didn’t need to give his all because he was just an anonymous body performing as an animal. At any rate, I was seeing a lack of fire and commitment in his movement, so ultimately this proved the most disappointing to me of the scenes.

This, however, was but a small twinge in the overall pleasure of “Still Life.” I’ll focus on my favorite bit, “The Ecstacy of Dancing Fleas,” starring a made-up species, the Humbolt’s Hog-Nosed Skunk Flea. It started with an orange-clad dancer (Carol-Anne Millar) skipping on stage, being bouncy and fun, followed by a platoon of … wait for it … Morris Men. I kid you not. Never before have I seen such a queer embodiment of English culture depicted in the highbrow world of ballet (though of course we have bastardized versions of Scottish, Spanish, and Hungarian folk dancing galore) and I was laughing. Then the bizarre factor was really turned up as the flea and the dancers interacted. She danced with them, they carried her, she ran away as they swung their sticks, she refused to participate in leap-frog – it was just totally fun and great to watch and really a good time.

But it got better and better. The big finale with the Brazlilian Woolly Monkey had us all thinking we were going to end the night on a simple high note of “crazy monkey in a top hat” plus Carmen Miranda/Caribbean ladies in full skirts … then the Morris Men and the Zebra’s fashion models came back on stage – only suddenly Hayden Griffin’s costumes had been pared back to just the black and white, and they all blended together nicely while still maintaining ties with their earlier incarnations (I was really impressed by this).

There was a huge “everybody come out and party” finale … and then … it turned out it wasn’t the finale. The masks came off of the animals, and everyone was dealing with a sudden burst of rain … and rifle shots, occasionally hitting the people as well as the “animals.” (Or was it lightning strikes? Both seemed possible.) The lighting was really great – swirls on the floor, shimmers (of water) on the backdrop – and somehow it didn’t make the whole thing feel like, “Ooh, ooh, save the pwecious cute animals from extinction,” but rather a more generalized panic, a desire for shelter, a bit of truth about death – and while I found the final image of the Noah’s Ark (painted on a scrim so the animals could show “within” it) a bit twee, it was pretty enough as a framing device and didn’t wreck the mood. (The painting itself was childlike and I didn’t care for the use of an ark – it’s just too fraught and felt a bit inappropriate being used outside of the context of a Norman cathedral.) If I just focused on the glowing bodies huddling together behind the scrim … it was nice. And really, this whole ballet was just really great. I could talk about the rest of it at length, but 1800 words seems like quite enough! I’m really glad I had a chance to see it and I look forward to seeing the Birmingham Royal Ballet when they come back to Sadler’s Wells in the fall, presenting David Bintley’s “Cyrano” (thanks to the head up from Rob at BRB) and hopefully another program of shorts – which will, of course, be what I’ll be seing.

(This review is for a performance seen on Tuesday, April 14th, at 7:30 PM. Two more performances take place on April 15th, at 2:30 and 7:30.)

September Theatre preview

August 27, 2008

This is the most shocking of weeks – I have no theater trips planned at all! That, however, is how the cookie crumbles when out of town trips come along (and no, I didn’t do Edinburgh this year). I do have plenty of shows planned for September, though … well, not nearly enough as I have an out of town guest staying for a week (with no interest in theater, as near as I can tell), but I will do my best with the time remaining.

These are the shows I’m planning to see (so far) for September:
3 September (Wednesday): Matthew Bourne’s Portrait of Dorian Grey – Sadler’s Wells
12 September (Friday): Wayne Macgregor’s Ignite festival at Covent Garden (this is over three days so I’ll just go when I can manage).
15 September (Monday): The Pinter double header at the National, Landscape and A Slight Ache. The Whingers didn’t care for Ache but that’s no surprise – they’re not major Pinter fans. Me, I love Pinter, and I like seeing two short plays back to back, so off I go.
16 September Tuesday: one of the Norman Conquest plays at the Old Vic. I’m not super enthused about this as I detested the last play I saw by Alan Ayckbourn (Absurd Person Singular, such a dud!), but it was an invitation from the Whingers so I said yes anyway.
17 September Wednesday: Zorro. This initially gave me The Phear, but the Whingers said it was great, so I’m going. (Actually it’s a bit of a surprise that they said it was great, since they’re far less enthusiastic than the average punter, but since they haven’t let me down yet with their recommendations I’m going to give this thing a shot.)
19 September Thursday: Small Craft at the Arcola. I suspect this is just a ploy for me to go out and get more good Turkish food in Dalston, but, whatever, the people at the theater don’t care why I come as long as I pay for my ticket (and I do like Tennessee Williams).
23 September Monday: Kamishibai theater at the Barbican. I like Japanese theater (this sounds like their version of Punch and Judy) and culture so I wouldn’t want to miss this.
25 September Wednesday: supposedly a trip to the ROH to see Callisto, if I can find tickets I can afford.
30 September Tuesday: Stevie Wonder at the O2. It’s a birthday present for my husband (and likely the most expensive night out we’ll have all year, which is why I’m bothering to mention it).

Finally: October 1st is Merce Cunningham at the Barbican, and though it’s not actually in September, I’m starting October with another long bout of being out of the country, so I thought I’d include it in this list. The last person I took with me to see Merce was apparently damaged by the experience (“Did you know it was going to be like that?”) so I’m being more particular and sticking to going with my husband, who, like me, thinks that Merce is one of the true grand masters of modern dance – a living treasure of American culture – and we are excited that we can continue to watch his already excellent art evolving in real time.

Holy shit, and I just found out that Autumn: Osage County, the single play I’ve been most dying to see for the last year, is coming to the National in November! Heads will roll but I WILL see that show!