12.23.2011

"DANCE IS A VISUAL ART"

                                                  Merce Cunningham

PARIS--
AT THE BEAUBOURG
Robert Rauschenberg: Express 
IN THIS grey scale canvas we see images surrounding the dancers of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

Images of what? Racehorses with jockeys; men rappelling down a cliff; some harmonious and beautiful naked bodies; something that looks like a an underwater creature or perhaps the human brain; a city on the water, with piers reaching out from the shores; and to the lower right, an end to war: Grant and Lee at the conclusion of the Civil War that rent the United States. E pluribus unum. In the equilibrium of the canvas, these disparate items are unified as the product  of an original mind. A singular mind.
You can see the images as an assemblage of unlike elements co-existing,  and you can see the dancers among them representing  beauty--and grace itself. Tilting at gravity, they embody the ability to fly through the air under one's own power. 

Or, you can see  the dancers apart--find them to be a beautiful refuge, as art can be, from the world and its various clamors. They draw your eye, and into the canvas you fall, and all the rest is left behind. Outside. You're in here. Inside the painting, or inside the dance.

Paul Cézanne  The Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses) 1906, Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris

AT THE MUSÉE DU LUXEMBOURG
Paul Cézanne :The Bathers 
MATISSE owned this painting for nearly forty years. You can stand, or walk about and look at it from different angles, perhaps kneel down to look up, as one might from a nearby chair: You can do this and you can see what Matisse saw. You can dwell where he dwelled, inside this painting, of which he wrote when donating it to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris:
In the thirty-seven years I have owned this canvas, I have come to know it quite well, though not entirely I hope: it has sustained me morally in the critical venture of my moments as an artist; I have drawn from it my faith and perseverance. "  Henri Matisse
Severity, formality, an even-minded treatment of space; not a point of view but points of view within a single work; a breaking out of the frame; an ever more complex technique; endless variety within given limitations; the natural world as subject; freedom allied with rigor, structure, line, volume; an absence of anecdote-- the work of art as its own subject: 
Establishing the ground on which those who follow will stand.
Paul Cézanne on painting: "La peinture est ce qui me vaux le mieux."
Merce Cunningham on dancing: "It's what's interested me all my life."

Merce Cunningham in "How to Pass, Fall, Kick and Run" with John Cage to the right   


AT THE THÉÂTRE DE LA VILLE
The Merce Cunningham Dance Company 
TONIGHT at 8:30 p.m., the curtain will go up on the Merce Cunningham Dance Company for the last time. Next week, they will close their fantastic run (since 1953) with a series of performances in the vast space of the Park Avenue Armory in New York City, but here, tonight, is the last of the repertory performances.

I have been looking at--and living inside--this work for just about the same number of years in which Matisse looked at his painting by Cézanne. The very first dance I saw is the one in the photograph above. Then I went back to my proper girls school in New Jersey, to a world of drab gym uniforms, Latin class, and an honor code that encouraged snitching. 

In the years to come, I would enter and re-enter this world in the theater--this world of Merce Cunningham--and  visit and re-visit it in my mind. And go back. To the theater, to the thinking. If it rained into a lake, it reminded me of Merce.
In the years since that first encounter with the champagne that was "How To," I have met most of that cast--Carolyn Brown, Sandra Neels, Gus Solomons, Valda Setterfield. And the casts that came after. The storytellers, too: John Cage, David Vaughan.
What an amazement...!

And for the last four years I have had the adventure of watching the company at work, and capturing what I could of them--and of Merce himself--on film. That has been wonderful. But it is, it was, that work itself that filled up my eyes, gave my mind something to occupy it, to wander in.

What a luxury it has been, to live inside that art. And what a necessity. A refuge for the mind. A place to dwell amidst the traffic of the ways.I can't imagine what my life would have been without it. Or how it would have been....

Once, in a raucously decorated salon behind the stage at the Palais Garnier, the composer-musician David Tudor introduced me to Teeny Duchamp, Marcel's widow.  What's to say about that, to have passed through the work and back into life--that life?

It's been raining in Paris the whole time I've been here. Rain, tears, what's the difference?
Water, water, water.

Cadaqués, Spain  1970          Merce Cunningham snorkeling                             ©James Klosty
George Balanchine: "If you live in water, you become a fish."

    




Special thanks to James Klosty
©Nancy Dalva

12.21.2011

CUNNINGHAM'S DANCERS

CLICK ON PHOTOS TO ENLARGE


"Loosetime"                                                                                                                 ©Tony Dougherty


PARIS--My last conversation with Merce Cunningham was at his apartment. There he graciously held what was in effect a series of farewells, courteous to the end. That afternoon I read this  to him, from the Tao te Ching:

Only he who is willing to give his body for the sake of the world is fit to be entrusted with the world. Only he who can do it with love is worthy of being the steward of the world.

 “This was you, Merce,” I said.

“Yes,” he said.

For the past two years, on the Legacy Tour that began after his death,  his dancers have been the stewards of his world--the world of his dances, so various, so richly populated with all manner of beings, and all manner of things, as well.

Over time, Cunningham used his dancers as his every element: animal, vegetable, and mineral. Non-narrative as it may be, his choreography is a kind of story theater, teeming with images composed, in their entirety, by the people on stage at any given moment.
    "Ocean"                                                                                                                     ©Hugo Glendenning

Over the years, since he began his own company in 1953, there have been over 110 such dancers. They remain in the work in palimpsest, dancing underneath the dancers who have followed them in the roles that were first made for them, or that they inherited and then passed on to others.

There they are, and there they were, and here they are. There have been many Cunningham seasons in Paris. At the Théâtre de l'Odéon, the Théâtre de la Ville, the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, at the Palais Garnier, at the Centre Pompidou, in the Cour de Palais Royal,  and then all “autour de Paris” as well.

La plus ça change, la plus c’est la même chose.

Because here in the coupole studio Robert Swinston is banging a drum and snapping his fingers, and the dancers are tilting and curving in their warm-up part of their class. Some have danced in the company for years, some worked with Cunningham only as members of the Repertory Understudy group. Of everyone in the room, only Robert Swinston danced on stage with him--although here in Paris too is Carolyn Brown, his onstage partner for twenty years. It was here in Paris that she danced with the company for the last time, and almost forty  years later, she is back, visiting old haunts, and revisiting the work she graced.

It is here that the company will dance its last evening of repertory, flying home right after to prepare for a final run of Events--an amalgamation of excerpts from a broad range of work of their own choosing and that of Robert Swinston--at the Park Avenue Armory in New York. They will be disposed on three stages, with runways in between, and the audience free to roam about them. Then it will be over, the clock will strike midnight, and like the glass slipper, only their unitards will be left behind.

These dancers will scatter, as the dancers always have, though never before all at once.  At times especially in his later years it seemed Cunningham regarded them with the same open interest with which he might regard a flock of pigeons. Some would fly away, others would land. Now they will take one last great sweep around the room, and disperse.
         "Beach Birds"   with Michael Cole at front                                                                 ©Michael O'Neill
These are the bodies Cunningham  used as a painter uses pigment, building up the fluid canvases that were his choreography. Pigment with a will and a life of its own, of course, but perhaps that is just as true for painters, as they step back to see what effect the paint has made with itself. Green has a life of its own, and blue, and violet....

He also used them as elements. For instance, in Cunningham’s  dance called “Loosestrife, “ the dancers were the very plants of the title,  rooted on stage, bending as grasses do. Tilt towards the sun,  bend in the breeze, gone with the wind. In a dance called "Five Stone Wind," one group of people  transmitted a way of moving to another group of people. But wait! Perhaps the dancers are also the stones, and perhaps they are also the wind. Sometimes, of course, they were animals--cats, wild beasts circling prey, and birds, birds, birds. In "Beach Birds," they are the setting, and the creatures within, human and avian alike.
                                 ©James Klosty

Merce was  himself protean--and so he regarded other bodies. He didn’t tell the dancers what they were. He told them what to do. He gave them the movement.

They were free to make things up, if they had the need. As later in the theater, so were we.

But--to use a phrase Robert Swinston, still teaching this class in front of me--uses all the time: Here’s the thing.

Merce knew what they were. When he choreographed his dances, he knew what he had in mind. The work carried his intention in its very architecture and pacing.

Now that we have access to his notes, we can check our selves--see if what we saw in the work is what he put in there. It turns out to have a remarkable transparency.

Take “Ocean”,  a dance which screened here on Sunday, with Charles Atlas in town to introduce this last of his Cunningham films. It begins with a man who enters the stage --which is a perfect circle--and makes an alphabet with his feet and body. A woman enters next, and does the same. Together, they have taught us the language of the piece, but also they have set the tone. They are arriving some place, and they seem to be discovering it, and they also seem to be alone. Who are they? He is Prospero, and she, perhaps, is Miranda.

Look in the notes. It says, “As if washed up on shore.”

Further into the dance--whose couples are dedicated, with the exception of one man (originally and still danced by Robert Swinston) who has a number of partners. One pair is so exceptionally ardent they could break your heart. Originally Frédéric Gafner  (now known as Foofwa d’Imobilité) and Kimberly Bartosik; in the film, Daniel Squire and Jennifer Goggans. At one point, she kneels on the floor, all the way across from him on the world that is the stage. He is turned away from her. She races towards him, her dress floating. He turns just in time, and catches her up in his arms as she wraps her legs around him. If there is something more romantic than this moment in any dance, I’ve never seen it.
Merce Cunningham rehearsing "Ocean" in 2007   (Robert Swinston partial view to left)         ©Hugo Glendinning

LOOK at the notes. “She clings to him for dear life,” it says.

This is what we do. We cling to things. But you can’t cling to dance.

You can hold it in your mind as best you can, you can summon it up from performances past even as it keeps painting itself, night after night in the theater. A continuous canvas, repainting itself.

And now it vanishes.

The work after this week will reside in a kind of perpetual present, or continuous past, in equilibrium, constant, whole, there to be visited in the mind.

                Jeannie Steele in "Biped"                                                                                  ©Tony Dougherty
And then in whatever performances other companies or projects will offer. Will it be the same? Of course not. Was it ever really? Perhaps not.

One night some time ago, Viola Farber, one of Cunningham’s originals, was in the opera house audience at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, watching an excerpt from Cunningham's galvanic “Winterbranch,” newly revived for an Event.


     Cunningham in "Winterbranch"      ©Max Waldman


“Was that what ‘Winterbranch’ was like?” I asked her.


“It wasn’t the “Winterbranch,” she replied. "But it was a version of 'Winterbranch,' and it was beautiful." It’s something to think about.



La plus ça change, la plus ça change.



I saw her together with Cunningham one last time after that. He was seated on a bench, cane in hand, in the upstairs lobby at City Center, a theater in New York, and she walked over leaning lightly on her cane. His face lit up, and he reached for her free hand, and kissed it. There they were. Hand in hand, the stewards of the world.
Viola Farber and Merce Cunningham














 Special thanks to James Klosty and Hugo Glendinning
©Nancy Dalva 2011

12.17.2011

IL EST CEDRIC ANDRIEUX

AS THE MERCE CUNNINGHAM DANCE COMPANY PERFORMS FOR THE LAST TIME IN PARIS, FORMER COMPANY MEMBER CEDRIC ANDRIEUX PERFORMS HIS RETROSPECTIVE ONE MAN SHOW AT THE THEATRE DE LA CITE INTERNACIONALE....

CedricAndrieux2(c)JaimeRoquedelaCruz
CEDRIC ANDRIEUX IN HIS DRESSING ROOM
 

Cédric Andrieux joined the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1999 ( after first dancing with  Jennifer Muller). He left in July,  2007 to join the Lyon Opera Ballet. 

On June 20th of that year, on the most beautiful late spring day, The Merce Cunningham Dance Company was on a bus returning  to the city after the outdoor dress rehearsal for a Cunningham Event at Philip Johnson's Glass House in Connecticut.

The long day had been a true fête champêtre, with the dancers sunning on a hill after lunch, and then resuming the long pair of stages connected by a walkway, with the woodland opening behind them like a day dream. On stage, they seemed to have come out of the forest. Just as, In Cunningham's Ocean, they seemed to come out of the sea. Cedric Ocean  


 IN EITHER ELEMENT, Andrieux could take dominion. He could be Poseidon, he could be Orlando in the Forest of Arden. Just in doing the steps and making them as big as they could be, he could summon up a world. This is the Cunningham magic, and Andrieux was an adept 


  "Ive been in New York for 10 years," he said at the time, "dancing Merce's work for nine years. I didn't think there's anyone else in this city who could bring me to as may levels as Merce did. But I want to dance different characters--which is why I chose Lyon. Because what I need in my career is diversity."
"I'm glad to be going back."
"It comes with a sense of apprehension a little bit, because I haven't lived my adult life there. It is mostly a lifestyle choice. I feel at a place where I've done the pieces I wanted to do, and I've done them enough."
 "I leave with no regrets, and I feel very fortunate about the experiences I've had in this company. I feel very at peace, and that's great. I feel very lucky that I got to dance for Merce Cunningham. On top of the experience, he opened so many doors for me."

"At the end of the day, it gave me freedom to explore different ways of approaching movement."

Andrieux was looking forward to dancing a wide repertory in Lyon, including works by Trisha Brown, Maguey Marin, William Forsythe, and Jérôme Bel. He was moving into an old apartment building with a balcony, a five minute walk from the opera house, and an eight minute walk from "an amazing outdoor market."

 Later that spring, Merce Cunningham --named by the French first a Chevalier and then an Officier of the the Légion d'Honneur--would say, "From childhood I always wanted to see France. Not just Paris but the North, South, East, and West of France." And there Andrieux would return.
One of Cédric's favorite roles was Merce's own in "Suite for Five."
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He performs a section of it--as if quoting his own earlier performance-- in this "visual autobiography" conceived and directed by Bel, telling the story of his dancing life from his first training in France though his last three years in Lyon.


This is the fifth in a series of pieces Bel describes as "questioning the experience and the knowledge of performers." (The first, about a member of the corps de ballet of the Paris Opera, was shown here in its film version at the Baryshnikov Arts Center.)
The winter after Cunningham's death, on a memorial program at the Théâtre de la Ville, Andrieux performed the Cunningham section of his piece.
 Standing alone on the unadorned stage in his practice clothes, Andrieux spoke quietly into a microphone fastened somewhere on his shirt. [There he spoke French; performing in the United States, he spoke in his very New Yorkais English.)
'Je m'appelle Cédric Andrieux, " he began.
CedricAndrieux1(c)HermanSorgeloos
He was still, modest, plain, and in fact the exact opposite  to what he had been with Cunningham: a master of projection. 
His intensity, his gaze, his ability to appear large in any context--these were some of his qualities dancing with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.  He was focused, he was ardent, he was there
And he was completely, compellingly present in this piece too, but not by sending himself out into the house. 
Instead, he drew his audience in. Somehow, he had reversed his polarity. 
In the course of the work, he performs what feel like sketches, very clear, of two of his  Cunningham roles--the "Suite" part he loved, and a solo from "Biped." Without music, without decor, just the steps. 
I hadn't thought I'd see Cedric in this work again, but there he was, drawing it out of his memory of that dancing, and so it seemed, out of mine.

That's a kind of magic, too, an Andrieux magic.
Even if you don't know this work he's danced in before, you can know it now, though the medium of this event, and it will stand for itself, as itself.
Il est Cédric Andrieux.

photos: dressing room, Jamie Roque de la Cruz; Cédric  Andrieux and Andrea Weber in "Ocean," Stephanie Berger; performance, Herman Sorgelos
                                                  
 ©copyright Nancy Dalva 2010 
 originally published in danceviewtimes.com

                 

12.15.2011

CUNNINGHAM IN PARIS: A PHOTO FROM JAMES KLOSTY

At the Théâtre de l'Odéon, 1970
Rehearsing "Rainforest" (wearing ankle weights from costume for "Signals")




dancers: Sandra Neels, Chase Robinson, Carolyn Brown
photo ©James Klosty 2011

12.11.2011

MERCE CUNNINGHAM /bio

published in

MERCE CUNNINGHAM

Merce Cunningham stood at the nexus of classicism and modernism the way Russian-born choreographer Michel Fokine stood at the nexus of classicism and romanticism. Cunningham stripped his choreographic process of all but the essential element of movement, excluding decor, narrative, music—anything decorative or extrinsic. These were later added back, their invention left to others—including John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns—without much, if any, collusion. All but an early few of his 150 works were made in silence. The independence—indeed the primacy—of choreography thus established, Cunningham next began to break down movement into increasingly small increments and began to divide up the body as well. To the lower-body positions of ballet, he added a flexible and dynamic torso; later, he would choreograph for the arms without regard to the lower body, giving them “facings” and directions all their own. The same, too, for the head.
Merce Cunningham at 498 3rd Ave, November 1970                                          Photo credit: James Klosty
Meanwhile, he broke dance out of the proscenium and began to assemble and reassemble his dances without regard to a “front,” fracturing and refracting the stage picture in the way that Cubists broke up the visual plane of a painting. This fragmentation mirrors the breakdown of syntax and the concurrent notions of simultaneity and multiplicity of associations that arose in modernist literature, and in computer coding the breakdown of information into digital bytes. Cunningham was also an early adopter of new technologies, including video and computer programming. All along, his use of chance procedures at some point or points in the making of every piece was a way to remove some of the effects of personal choice and habit and willful control, and can be viewed as a kind of personal Taoism.

Cunningham was born in Centralia, Washington in 1919, one of three sons of a lawyer father and a gadabout mother. He first studied dance with the vaudevillian Maud Barrett, then studied modern dance at Seattle’s Cornish School, where he met Cage; in 1939, at the Bennington School of the Dance at Mills College in Oakland, California, he met Martha Graham, whom he followed to New York. In the summer of 1953, while in residence at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, he formed the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which remained his focus for the rest of his life. Two weeks before he died in July 2009 at age 90, he was in his studio with his dancers, working on something new.

NANCY DALVA IS THE MERCE CUNNINGHAM TRUST SCHOLAR IN RESIDENCE
©Nancy Dalva 2011 
www.nancydalva.com
photo  ©James Klosty
published in The Brooklyn Rail with the kind permission of The Brooklyn Academy of Music, which published this piece in slightly different form in SIDEBAR FROM BAM: The Complete Works

12.07.2011

THE LEGACY TOUR: CHANCES ARE

The very first performances of Merce Cunningham's "Split Sides" were at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where it returns this week for two final performances, each night occasioning a series of dice tosses to select among the many possible combinations of set, costumes, music, lights, and choreography. Here is a diary of those first four evenings,  and what they revealed.


 October 14, 16-18, 2003

Rolling the dice gives a moment of wonder, the imagination conjuring.
A split-second later, the dice at rest, the mind becomes active. 
                                                                                                         Merce Cunningham


The Merce Cunningham Dance Company
OF ALL of the multiple innovations in the work of Merce Cunningham, the use of chance is the most confusing. Such a clear thing, this toss of a die, or a handful of pennies, and yet chance is the part of the Cunningham dogma taken on faith, and dimly apprehended. 


The independence of dance as an art form–the notion that dance does not need music, but may simply coexist with it—still may seem heresy to some, but as an idea it is well understood. The separation of dance from story is now old hat, or old enough, though still giving rise to the notion that Cunningham's dances are "abstract," when dance, because it is done by people, can never really be abstract.

BUT CHANCE! Chance makes people think of randomness, of disorder, of improvisation, of fate and fortune, of things made up as they are happening, or just before. Nothing, though, could be further from the Merceian truth, which is quite the opposite. His is not the unhinged Miltonic world of Paradise Lost, where "Chaos umpire sits," and "Chance governs all." Not in the slightest. In his world, Merce governs all, even when by a kind of non-doing, this latter being neither benign nor malign, but a kind of sovereign absenting of ego. Even when Cunningham does not make choices—as when, for instance, he leaves the decor to the art director, or some similar personage, who chooses the artists; and likewise hands off the music—he has chosen the chooser. The truth is that in his world, Cunningham is God, or, in terms of the Tao, the center of the wheel from which all spokes extend.

Every choice, or non-choice, is made by him.
In the chance procedures Cunningham uses at some point in the making of each of his dances, all the available elements are his. This movement first, or that one? The moves are all his. What number of dancers? The number available is up to him. Chance is simply a marvelous surprise-generator. And Cunningham likes surprises. Thus he must have enjoyed his season this past week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where chance procedures went public.

THE WORLD PREMIERE OF SPLIT SIDES

Iacta alea est.
The die is cast.

(Julius Caesar, 1st Century B.C.)
There are two scores, commisioned from the British Radiohead, playing live opening night, and the Icelandic Sigur Rós, who sweetly fall in love with the dancers and, as it turns out, will stay on in the pit for the whole run. Each band has composed a piece of twenty minutes and Cunningham has made two dances of twenty minutes (known as A and B ).
There are two backdrops, both by photographers. One is by the 18-year old Robert C. Heishman, who works in black and white ( often using cameras made from everyday objects, with film in one end and a pin hole at the other.) The other is by Catherine Yass, working in color (using a large-format camera, and layering and lighting techniques to produce composite images with manipulated and heightened coloration).
There are two sets of costumes by James Hall, one black and white unitards, the other silky-looking bell-bottomed jumpsuits, all sleeveless, with acid-trip coloration. Each set of clothes is similarly imprinted with a network of black crisscrosses and branches suggesting twigs, or spider webs.
There are two light plots. So that we can see the whole thing, James. F. Ingalls has been called upon to devise interchangeable light plots, which, as a convenience, are given numeric names. One is from the 200 Series; the other from the 300 Series. 


ON THE DAY OF PERFORMANCE, Cunningham handed someone a die to cast, to determine the order of the two dance parts. The other elements were selected on stage before each performance of "Split Sides."( After a time, the dancers grew accustomed to the work, and the dance element also was selected right before the performance, with the dancers dashing off stage to jump into the right costumes, keeping which part of the dance was first in their heads as they dashed.)


FIRST NIGHT
ON OPENING NIGHT, the curtain went up on Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York City, who introduced Merce Cunningham and two of his former artistic directors, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, there to roll the die. Three titans of twentieth century modernism, gamely chancing it in the twenty-first. 

Cunningham walked with a cane now, and not easily, with the Merlinishness he has long exhibited is in full flower. He really did seem to travel backwards through time, meeting up with the young and showing them the way to the future.

Rauschenberg had suffered a stroke, but his merriness seemed intact. He was, as ever, a really loveable public personage.

Johns, in contrast, exhibited a truly magisterial aloofness, not the usual aspect of someone who is about to roll snake eyes (or not). 

These personal characteristics were not so very different from the characters of their  art: magical, warm, cool. To see them together was, well, something. Joining them on stage were the company's patroness saint, Sage Cowles; Cunningham's longtime dance partner Carolyn Brown; the bands; and the designers; and the dancers, who popped up now and then as they jumped to maintain a warmed-up state.
After Cunningham explained the chance process, to no small confusion and amusement on the part of the audience, a die was produced for an on-the-spot determination of which of each two-part production component would go first. (David Vaughan, the Cunningham archivist and chronicler, serves as the master of ceremonies during these procedures.) So, the titans of modernism tossed the die.


This yielded the following two-part version of the work:
Dance: A/B
Music: Radiohead/Sigur Rós
Sets: Heishman/Yass
Costumes: black&white/color

Light: 300/200
"A gimmick," a man behind me would mutter later in the week, on the last night. (And it does take a lot of explaining, before one can even begin to get at the dancing itself.) But as it turned out, not a gimmick, but a revelation.
For while the elements stayed the same from performance to performance , they would vary in their combination, though very slightly, as chance had it.

The affect of the choreography, and the effect, would change from performance to performance, depending on the order of its arrival, what it wore, and where it was. (Just as you yourself appear different in a bathing suit at the beach or a winter coat at a funeral, though you may be standing the same way, and thinking the same thing.)

One could make an aesthetic judgement about the various results; one might have a preference. From evening to evening, one went home floating on air, or shuddering. The audience response was vivid each night—the houses were sold out, right up to the rafters—but the group preference was clearly for color, for pleasure, and for a happy ending.

So it was on the first night, which went from dark to light.
Black and white costumed dancers in front of a black and white backdrop depicting what was perhaps a ruined roller coaster, glimpsed through fog. The lighting throughout enhancing directionality—if the dancers looked up, light took their upturned faces. From the sides, light enhanced curves, sharpened angles. Unobtrusive shifts in lighting levels, giving a sense of time passing, and of narrative—light suggesting, as it does, time of day, and time passing, or place changing, without overtly imposing meaning.

Radiohead offered a sonorous and serious score, varied in texture, and with no overwhelming beat. It was not so very different in kind from other electronic music the company has commissioned in the past, and one felt the rockers were making a bid to follow in the serious footsteps of the electronic composers who have preceded them on the company roster. At any rate, they gave themselves over to the cause at hand, and served the Cunningham well.

If the whole of this first half of Split Sides was wintry, hermetic, arctic, with the observing mind bouncing off the whole thing to careen around feeling very much alone, and the feeling heart pierced to the core, the second half was, to borrow an expression from Cunningham, an "all candy dinner." 

The effect was of starting off in Kansas, and ending up in Oz. 




The costumes were happy and bright and sugary, the photographic backdrop smeared buildings into towering pastel after dinner mints, and Sigur Rós employed a xylophone; a battery of timpani constructed of toe shoes; the recorded sounds of a baby cooing; and some wind-up devices they happily used to tick-tock along with what they could see from the pit. 


Thus as Derry Swan spun thrice around her partner Cedric Andrieux, Venus cavorting with Mars, the musicians made merry matching sounds. (For those who were appalled by this, given the dogma of separation of the various elements of the production,  I would only point out that the late David Tudor, Cunningham's music director after Cage's death, and a long time pit musician and composer for the company, by his own admission did the same thing, though not in such a rudimentary way. He admitted this to me backstage at the Paris Opera, after the first performance of "Enter,"  when from my vantage point he could be seen ramping up the sound when the stage grew dark and dull and overshadowed by the set, as if in counter-balance. In other words, if there are rules, they had  already been broken.)
This part of the work also contains two passages of enormous warmth—a solo first  danced by the beautiful Jonah Bokaer, and a quadruple duet—that is, the same duet multiplied by four, that reads like a sermon on love, with each couple doing the same thing, but in its own touching and individual way. The choregraphy here incorporate a ravishing figure in which the woman climbs onto her partners' back as he lunges to one side, is carried over onto his front as he shifts to a lunge on other side, and knifes her legs over to end up behind him again. This is a beautiful and rapt a phrase as Cunningham has made.
Despite these lush interludes, and also a comedic trio reminiscent of the Cunningham videodance "Delicomedia," much of "Split Sides" is fiendishly difficult, and notably spare.
It can readily be characterized as Late Cunningham, with the choreographer frequently working in multiple images of the same figure—for instance, eight dancers each doing the same thing, but each with a different front, so we see the step from different sides at the same time. 360 degrees, all from your seat.

CUNNINGHAM always stands at a kind of choreographic South Pole where every direction is North; or alternatively a North Pole, where every direction is South. For him, every direction is front. Here he fractures the figure into multiples, in angular, sparse poses that refract each other, so that the stage is a prism. This part of his work is unforgiving, and from a distance, chilly. Up close, as from the second row, the personalities of the dancers enliven it. Where you sit makes the dance different as much as any chance changes rung before the curtain—but that is always true at a dance performance. You can sit back, and see the night sky, or sit close, and see the human condition. 

Daniel Squire and Holley Farmer

SECOND NIGHT

Times go by turns, and chances change by course,
From foul to fair, from better hap to worse.
Robert Southwell (
Times go by Turns, 1595)

The throws of the die yield even, even, odd, odd. Only one element changes, the costumes. Thus:
Dance: A/B
Music: Radiohead/Sigur Rós
Sets: Heishman/Yass
Costumes: color/black&white
Light: 300/200
Rather surprisingly, the flipping of costumes makes a new dance—or perhaps the same dance with a different mood.  In fact, Split Sides looks very moody indeed this way, resembling some sort of cruel psych experiment. 

To wit: in an arctic landscape, some Tahitians are set down. And vice-versa in the second part. Instead of harmony, disjunction; and the drama of contrast, but only visual. (These would not be the inherent contrasts of Cunningham choreography, where fast—and these days faster, faster, faster!—is set against slow, light against heavy, aerial against grounded, and so forth.) 

In sum: the dance was easier on the eye last night, and it has given up its unity of impression. This isn't to say there is a better version or a worse. But there is a pleasant and a much less pleasant. The disharmony tonight only points up the exigencies of this particular format, with the parts transposible.

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company
By neccessity, "Split Sides" feels on first enounter like a Cunningham "Event," one of those signature amalgams of parts of various dances, rather than one of the great repertory works possessed of an ineluctible inevitablity. Because the halves can run in either order, they have to have beginnings and ends that won't put a dancer in two places at once, or in one place wearing one costume one second, and another the next. Thus the troupe is divided in half at signal junctures.

But company and continuity are not the only things split. The body itself is split every which way—one half against another, side to side, top to bottom—and dancers themselves are split, even when dancing together. As evidence there exists the most difficult, cool, clinical duet ever devised by Cunningham, first danced by two virtuosi of the impossible, the firebrand Holly Farmer and the soulful Daniel Squire. In this encounter, neither seemed to have anything to do with the other; they intersect with hostile inadvertence. In the end, in anything but abandonment—she gives the feeling she could just reverse course with no need of a partner—Farmer fell back into Squire's arms in just the way that Cathy Kerr fell back into Alan Good's arms in the Cunningham masterpiece "Points in Space." So similar, so different.
Holley Farmer and Daniel Squire


THIRD NIGHT

All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction which thou canst not see....
(Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man, 1733)


Everything turns up even. Thus:
Dance: A/B
Music: Radiohead/Sigur Rós
Sets: Heishman/Yass
Costumes: black&white/color
Light: 200/300
This is the same as the first night but with the lights switched, by far the most subtle change one can ring here. Light, which enables us to see, is hard itself to hold in the mind.


FOURTH NIGHT

Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard.
A throw of the dice will never eliminate chance.
(Stéphane Mallarmé, 1897)
BY NOW there is consternation in the front of the house, and a certain disbelief backstage.

Night after night, and still the same order of music, dance, set! 

(If anyone thought the results were rigged, this certainly proved contrary—one somehow expected, and even hoped for a dog's dinner night to night, with everything all mixed up.) The pre-show cast inverted the dance order, so hopes were high at the public tosses—but the die came up odd all the way.
Odd! Odd! Odd! Odd! The two halves of the production were identical to the night before, but flipped. Thus:
Dance: B/A
Music: Sigur Rós/Radiohead
Sets: Yass/Heishman
Costumes: color/black&white
Light:300/200
Same old, same old, one should think.

But no. The consequent change to the work is astonishing.
 
Brought forth by a few rolls of a single die, tragedy comes calling. The first part, all warmth and sweetness, with young Jonah in his solo and the four couples in their love song, yields to the harsh wintry second part, with the dancers looking like extremely intelligent aliens who have just this moment come to inhabit human bodies, trying them out for the first time without knowing any of the human rules of moving.

The eye glances off what it does not recognize—the glinting surface of the unfamiliar, as glances, too, the mind. Bleak, bleak, bleak—the summer of the first half giving way to winter, sunlit youth yielding to starlit age, remote and chill.

At the curtain calls that night, radiant Jeannie Steele—whose love for the dancing so suited her to be the choreographer's guardian angel—stepped off to get Cunningham. He entered on her arm and joined his troupe, taking his place at the far left of the stage. The company stepped back to allow him a solo bow, then turned as one to applaud him, so courteous, so gallant, so persevering, standing there in a brilliant orange shirt.

Shortly thereafter, the curtain came down on the Merce Cunningham Dance Company's New York season. The company flew off to other theaters, other performances, Cunningham still then traveling along to run the show .

 Merce Cunningham (with Robert Swinston) at the Round House in London in 2006  courtesy of Hugo Glendinning


WHATEVER CHANCE procedures he used in making the repertory were been made during during the choreographic process, the results striking sparks to his own creativity.

He did not take any chances on his dancers, whom he selected and cast. 

And for all the freedom he allowed his composers and his visual artists, their work was made before the curtain rises (though the music often contained variables).

But there was indeed a rogue element at play at the time of the performance—an element that is random, uncontrollable, unknowable ahead of the event.

Dicey in every way. 

That element would be us, coming into the theater with our minds cluttered and our sensibilities settled, carting around the baggage of the day. 

NIGHT AFTER NIGHT, year after year, in city after city, Merce Cunningham took a chance on us.




portrait of Merce Cunningham ©Hugo Glendinning
All other photos © Tony Dougherty 
Portions of this essay were originally published by Alexandra Tomalonis  in danceviewtimes (October 20, 2003)
Copyright © Nancy Dalva 2011