On Monday night, the New York premiere--it has only been seen, once, in Minneapolis--of Charles Atlas's film of "Ocean," at the "Mondays with Merce" series at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. This most epic of Merce's dances can be seen as many ways  as there are viewers in the room--or in the quarry where it was last performed, and where Atlas and his team traveled for this last collaboration between the choreographer and his longtime filmmaker. In anticipation, I am posting this piece (with cast update at the end) published at the time of the last New York performances of "Ocean," at the Rose Theater. "Ocean" is epic both in form (you can "read" it as a long poem) and in its qualities. It is a majestic work, a grand work. To my eye, it recounts Merce Cunningham's long relationship with John Cage, and recounts, in the structure of its series of duets, the many ways in which long time partners can relate to each other, and to the world. It is also a marvel of simultaneity and multiple foci---a work totally in the round, and totally wonderfully satisfactory no matter where on the circumference you yourself sit--and I've tried to sit everywhere, or as everywhere as one can, over time.  I once said to Merce that there wasn't a bad seat in the house, and he replied, instantly,   "So far no one has complained." Tomorrow, our seats--that is, our joint vantage point--will be selected by Atlas. You couldn't ask for a more trustworthy auteur--he has carried on this work without Merce just as he himself carried on the notion for this dance--which was John Cage's--without Cage. He will introduce the film, preceded by a brief clip of Merce himself on "Ocean"  from the "Mondays with Merce" Film Library. 

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company
Rose Theater
The Lincoln Center Festival
New York City
July 12-16, 2005


"Could you make a dance in the round?" John Cage asked Merce Cunningham before the James Joyce/John Cage Festival in Zurich, in June, 1991. He had in mind a dance performed in the middle of a circular space, surrounded by the audience and then musicians, in concentric circles. There being no suitable venue at the Swiss event, Cage's idea was set aside, and a little more than a year later, he died, quite unexpectedly. Cunningham went on to make dances that seemed to subsume Cage's death—among them "Doubtletoss" and "Enter"–and to carry forward his notion, moving, as in "Breakers," ever closer to the sea. Cage's grand concept was first fully realized in Brussels on May 18, 1994, at the vertiginous theater-in-the-round called the Cirque Royal. There, for the first time, 112 orchestra musicians played a complicated 2,403 page score, "Ocean 1-95," by Andrew Culver, elaborating on Cage's initial plans; and at the same time, David Tudor introduced his live electronic soundscape, "Soundings: Ocean Diary," comprised of eerily reprocessed underwater noise. Marsha Skinner's sea-inspired leotards and filmy dresses painted the dancers in purples, turquoises, oranges, mauves, violets—the colors of the sun, the sky, the untroubled sea. The dance itself was an amazement: 90 teeming minutes of a dance perfectly without front, back, or sides. It contained (about 26 minutes from the start) a figure–dancers in a circle, arms linked, variously balanced—from the very center of a Cunningham work called "Beachbirds," made in 1991. Also carried forward, though subtle means of casting and configurations, were threads from his other Joycean epic made with Cage, "Roaratorio," which itself had since been echoed in "Enter."

With its slow beginning and convulsive ending–from nothing to everything and back to nothing—"Ocean" also recalled that other Cunningham tour de force with a Joycean title, "Sounddance." ("In the beginning, was the sounddance.") Both were creation myths. And both, despite the separate conception of score, decor, and dance, had a marvelous unity of impression.

The Voyage Out

Right after that opening night performance, Cunningham said to me, "Now all my dances look flat to me." His next dance, "Ground Level Overlay," premiered in 1995, recreated many of the multi-directional effects of "Ocean" on a proscenium stage, and one might have expected him to go on in this rich vein. Instead, having mastered the problems inherent in these two complex works, Cunningham moved on to still a different way of working—other complexities, other challenges—making a series of works that looked like channel zapping, with concomitant, and near-impossible, refinements to his technique, which now required getting from "here" to "there" without the "to."

"Ocean," meanwhile, circled the globe: to La Fenice in Venice, which burned down right after; to Japan; to the first Lincoln Center Festival in 1996, where it had a fantastic run in a specially built theater in Damrosch Park. In all, there were eight productions, and then it was gone.

In the intervening years, parts of the dance have been seen in Cunningham's "Events, " which are intermission-less concerts made up of excerpts from the repertory and newly made material. The original cast, but two, retired from the company. And sadly, Chris Komar, Cunningham's assistant at the time "Ocean" was made, died, and so, later on, did David Tudor.

The Return

In 1992, Robert Swinston, a member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company for twelve years, became the assistant to the choreographer, and began work on meticulous archival constructions of works that had fallen out of performance. Jeannie Steele, who had joined the company just the year before "Ocean" and danced on to become the senior female in the troupe, in June 2001 was appointed rehearsal director. They are the only members of the original cast of "Ocean" still dancing, and it fell to them to bring back the dance, so that the choreographer could recalibrate his intricate epic.

The only change in scheme was an adjustment in number. Matthew Mohr joined the company while the work was being made, and in consequence had a small role. So also did China Laudisio, who traveled through sections of the dance paired with Emma Diamond, and appeared in group sections but had no significant duet or solo tasks. Their two small parts are now combined into one, danced by Daniel Roberts. This has the salutary effect of giving the beauteous Lisa Boudreau (in Diamond's part) a cavalier during a wonderful section of the work in which she travels on a journey through two twined configurations of dancers, as if through a maze. (There are two other such moments in the dance when, in a kind of story-theater effect, some dancers become scenery. There is the circle of men so like the circle in "Beachbirds," though which Boudreau will weave her way, followed by three other women. And there is a pergola made by raising Jennifer Goggans up high and flat in the air, like a lovely roof, where again dancers weave in and out, like goldfish in and out of a miniature castle.)

Some of the originals were in the house for the New York performances, seeing for the first time the piece they had made with Cunningham more than ten years ago. This was a significant revival, with the current company taking on, all at once, singular solos and highly charged duets created by singular and high charged performers. The shapes are the same, the steps are the same, but what you might call the fragrance is different, because the chemistry is different.
Ocean's 14

Here is how the casting falls out (proceeding alphabetically), first cast to revival:

Kimberly Bartosik–Jennifer Goggans
Thomas Caley–Jonah Bokaer
Michael Cole–Cédric Andrieux
Emma Diamond–Lisa Boudreau
Jean Freebury–Holly Farmer
Frédéric Gafner–Daniel Squire
China Laudisio–Daniel Roberts
Matthew Mohr–Daniel Roberts
Banu Ogan–Andrea Weber
Jared Philips– Koji Mizuta
Glen Rumsay–Rashaun Mitchell
Jeannie Steele
Robert Swinston
Cheryl Therrien–Marcie Munnerlyn
Jenifer Weaver–Julie Cunningham

Cunningham, of course, did this casting, and it is exceedingly strong. In some cases, the current dancer bears some physical resemblance to the original, as with Munnerlyn and Therrien. In others, they are nothing like. Throughout, the originals are proclaimed by their successors, as when Bokaer echoes, on his very different body, Caley's plush plié and remarkable relevé. The greatest change is not in a solo, where you might expect to find it, nor in any of duets, where the personal dynamics are so altered, but in two group sections (one at about 27 minutes into the dance , the next at about 56 minutes), where women are joined by a single man. In 1994, this was Jared Angle, a blonde, curly-haired, cherub. With him, the women looked like goddesses playing with Ganymede, their cup-bearer. With the virtuoso very grown-up Koji Mizuta in the role, the women look like his harem, or a bevy of sirens, sent to sing him to his ruin.
Love Makes the World Go Round

There are four dedicated couples in "Ocean:" Munnerlyn and Mitchell, Goggans and Squire, Steele and Bokaer, and Weber and Andrieux, with the rest of the cast rather more fickle. Swinston, in particular, plays the ladies man, gallantly tending to Boudreau and then the tempering the firebrand Farmer with grim resolve. Steele, meanwhile, still scampers like a girl, touchingly escorted by her serious young swain Bokaer, whom she charms with smiles. Munnerlyn and Mitchell are complimentary angularities (the originals were more contrasted, he being attenuated and she remarkably fluid). The other two pairs are so ardent you can feel their every touch. Goggans is a natural soubrette, but rises to the drama occasioned by the exceptional focus and attack Squire brings to this role, and indeed all his roles. And Andrieux! Not only does he rule the men's section like Poseidon, he turns what was (with Cole and Ogan) a kind of temple sculpture come-to-life episode into a French film. And a hot one.

Much to the credit of this revival, each of these duets has a different movement character, which is consistent from the first production, quite apart from the casting. You can, if you want to, read them as a Cunningham primer on partnership in dance, or, if you will, in life. A couple can mirror each other, a couple can follow one another, one partner can pursue another, and one partner can seduce the other, a couple can get all mixed up with each other so you can hardly tell them apart, or a couple can proceed though life in parallel, facing everything together, side by side.

What Goes Around....

"Ocean" is made up of some 128 phrases, and choreographed using chance procedures to determine facings, numbers of dancers on stage at given times, and the timings of entrances and exits, but these compositional devices having no bearing on the experience of seeing it. What does determine what you see is where you sit on the 360 degree front of the piece. But while in Damrosch Park there was a sense of foreground and background—what was in front of you felt immediate, and what was across seemed to be happening on the other side of the world; the Rose Theater was wonderfully intimate. There was a great sense of simultaneity and complexity. The excellent acoustics enhanced this effect, submerging the viewer in a sonar bath.

Perhaps the most complex parts of "Ocean" are the tricky large group sections; a swathe of these transpire at about 65 minutes into the piece, when there is a great sweep of group movement. From upstairs–and up is the place from which to see this work, if you can—there is a section where, as trios surround single frozen figures and animate them, you feel as if a spiral staircase were swirling in front of you, with all the figures on it moving down. By then your eye has accustomed itself to the language of this dance, which Cunningham lays out at the open, with two solos.

"Ocean" begins with Daniel Squire performing a phrase—almost like an alphabet, or a vocabulary—in varying directions, so that you see him do the same thing first from one angle, and then from another. He exits, and Julie Cunningham—a pristine technician with perfect placement—comes in and gives the feminine version of the text. You see this and you of course move on with the dance, but the choreographer will bring you back here later, restating their themes. Some 70-odd minutes into the piece, several of the women in turn are lifted by three men, and put down again facing different directions, as if they were sculpture and their porters (Bokaer, Mitchell, Roberts, a frequent trio throughout) were art movers. One of these is Julie Cunningham. Then at about 78 minutes, Squire returns with three women, but they do not carry him. Rather, he moves from position to position—stepping out in huge "rondes de jambe," or outward circles of the leg, tracing giant curves on the floor. When he pauses, the women support him (he assumes a different statuesque pose at each of ten points on the stage) and are at the same time supported. Somewhere in the sequence, he transforms into Apollo, and they into the Muses, and then the notion vanishes. But the allusion is there, if you want it to be, as is any other meaning you want to find.

Full Circle

The technique that binds "Ocean" into a whole is the use of recurrence and repetition of what we might call visual "rhyme." For instance, take a phrase performed by Jonah Bokaer. He commands the stage at the time, about 26 minutes into the piece, moving in a fast circling outward with one leg moving like a propeller. This is performed again near the end of the piece by two women, as part of a complex group section where it catches your eye by chance. This sort of thing happens throughout. A phrase or figure is often clearly and quite ravishingly repeated—as when Jeannie Steele is lifted, at 62 minutes, in different directions, so that she seems to be sailing around the stage. But also, a phrase can be echoed almost subliminally. So: the same phase, different dancer, different direction, different configuration on stage. This effects what in a poem would be feminine rhyme, or slant rhyme. A rhyme that's slightly off, but there. In this manner, Cunningham casts his net, elastic and strong.
For all the circularity of "Ocean"—there's one giddy moment when Robert Swinston spins like a top in order to move—the most magical of its directions is up. Up, up. Above the work—in Brussels it was rigged to rise over the piece as the dance began—is a white mesh disk. It could be the top of a tent, it could be the sky, it can be whatever you want it to be. To me, it seems like a veil. Something we cannot see through, or beyond. There is light behind it, so that when the dancers look up, as they often do throughout the piece, they are illuminated. As a practicality, their gesturing up includes those in the upper tiers of the theater in their activities. As a metaphor, they may be saluting something, or someone, up above us, in the boundless aether.

Not that Cunningham would suggest that—something metaphorical. But neither would he mind it. Just like all of his work, "Ocean" is different for each viewer. As usual, the choreographer encourages individual interpretation by avoiding conventional story-telling, instead making movement drama via off-kilter trios, plush duets, intense solos, teeming group sections; and also by contrasting types of movement. Allegro and largo. Largo within allegro, allegro within largo. Stillness contrasted with steppiness; heaviness contrasted with lightness. Trios carried across personnel, so that a series of dancers performs one long phrase. Morphing groups, so that a quintet becomes five solos, or a trio and two solos, catching you up in the inconstant, changing relationships. But here, in this dance, in "Ocean," the physical set up—the audience seated in the round, and the choreography made so that every point on its 360 degrees is the front—enhances what you might call the psychic set up. What seems to be arriving to you seems to be leaving to me. (In this way a Cunningham dance, and this one especially, is a lot like life.)

You might have experienced "Ocean" as an episodic adventure along the lines of the "Odyssey," or perhaps as a romance, with each duet its own love story. Or yours may have been a more contemplative perspective, with the dance viewed as seascape, or moving sculpture. Your particular lens may be microcosmic, so that the tricky fugue sections looked like step dancers on a village green; or it may be macrocosmic, so that these figurations appeared as constellations—just what you would see if, one starry night at sea, you gazed up at the sky. Whatever you saw in the dance, every night of this past week, you could see (unless you were in the balcony above him, sharing his perspective) Merce Cunningham, seated in the first tier of seats, watching his dance from the audience. The maker, out among us, sharing his vision. He sees and shows us the world without preconceptions, but with a clear mind, a constant curiosity and an open heart.

Note: for those interested in dance lineage, the roles in the film (first cast to film cast) are as follows--Andra Weber was unfortunately injured at the time, and does not appear, but her role is "covered" in most cases (the full company sections are one dancer short) with Emma Desjardins and Brandon Collwes dancing the duet first danced by Banu Ogan and Michael Cole, then  Weber with Cedric Andrieux.  Robert Swinston is hence the only original cast member in the work. 

Kimberly Bartosik–Jennifer Goggans
Thomas Caley–Jonah Bokaer-Silas Riener
Michael Cole–Cédric Andrieux-Daniel Madoff
Emma Diamond–Lisa Boudreau-Melissa Toogood
Jean Freebury–Holly Farmer
Frédéric Gafner–Daniel Squire
China Laudisio–Daniel Roberts-Brandon Collews
Matthew Mohr–Daniel Roberts-Brandon Collwes
Banu Ogan–Andrea Weber-NOT IN FILM
Jared Philips– Koji Mizuta
Glen Rumsay–Rashaun Mitchell
Jeannie Steele-Emma Desjardins
Robert Swinston
Cheryl Therrien–Marcie Munnerlyn
Jenifer Weaver–Julie Cunningham

Photos (all by Stephanie Berger):
First:  The company in "Ocean."
Second:  Rashaun Mitchell and Marcie Munnerlyn perform "Ocean"
Third:  Cedric Andrieux and Jeannie Steele perform "Ocean"
Fourth: Daniel Squire arm up, with three women: Jennifer Goggans on left, Holly Farmer partially visible, Jeannie Steele
Volume 3, No. 27
July 18, 2005

copyright ©2005, 2010 Nancy Dalva