Weather or Not
Val Bourne and Daniel Roberts on Merce Cunningham at Tate Modern

by Donald Hutera

September, 2003

2003 is both the 50th anniversary of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and Dance Umbrella’s 25th birthday. ‘Our actual birthday, the date of the first Umbrella performance, is November 7th,’ says Umbrella’s Val Bourne. This year, on that very night, the Cunningham troupe will be at the Tate Modern presenting one of its glorious, mix-and-match repertory Events. That week’s performances, she continues, ‘are a conflation of two ideas. I thought about what would be a really fantastic present to coincide with our birthday. For some time we’ve been trying to get into the Turbine Hall; as soon as I saw it I thought it would be fantastic to do something in there. Merce is exactly the kind of person who’d know what to do with it. As he’s said, it’s an awesome space. Cavernous. That’s the challenge. He’s the one to make it work. ‘But,’ Bourne cautions, ‘we won’t really know how it’s going to work until it happens.’ This is due largely to the particular conditions at work in the Turbine Hall, where Olafur Eliasson will, from October 16, be presenting his latest installation.

The Danish/Icelandic artist is known for boundary breaking, perception-altering work that probes the relationships between nature, architecture and technology. Many of his installations and sculptures feature natural materials such as light, steam, water, fire, wind and ice. At the Tate Eliasson will be investigating the British preoccupation with the weather, which he may very well bring, in some form or other, indoors.What that means for Cunningham’s dancers will remain, until nearer the time, an enigma. It certainly ought to challenge their ability to perform under virtually any conditions. But then challenges, as the interview below makes plain, are what being a Cunningham dancer is all about. Merce is exactly the kind of person who’d know what to do with it [the Turbine Hall].

Donald Hutera: This is your third year in the company.What have you learned either about dance, or yourself as a dance artist, since joining?

Daniel Roberts: Dancing for Merce has taught me how to adapt, and mostly, how to problem-solve. I believe this comes from the process of him making movement from a perspective that anything could happen at anytime, and that the dancer should train for that preparedness. For example, he creates these difficult, sometimes almost impossible, movements and positions with the use of Lifeforms [a computer graphics system for dance which Cunningham has helped pioneer], but it’s up to us as the dancers to make it work for ourselves. Using the training that we’ve been given, I try to take each element for what it is and keep the purity of what was essentially the direction of the action, and hopefully feel that a synergy between choreographer and dancer has occurred.

DH: What’s it like being ‘inside’ a Cunningham dance?

DR: It can be an occupation of task or a platform for self-indulgence. Sometimes the phrases are so complicated and so detailed to remember, especially when they’re new, that I can only focus on doing what I’m doing at that moment – counts, tempo, space. At other times, when I’m feeling more familiar with the material, I can really enjoy what I’m doing, feeling confident that my body has the physical motor memory of movement that will allow more of myself to come through.

DH: How does this differ from being inside other choreographers’ works?

DR: I have so much respect for the way Merce passes on his movement to his dancers. Not necessarily how we learn the movement, but that we’re given the freedom to make our own personal investigation into what we’re given. The philosophy that it is acceptable for several people to do the same movements, but with very different approaches, is really a gift.We’re not a corps de ballet trying to obtain the perfection of absolute unison. I think he enjoys our individuality. I still enjoy watching the different nuances of each dancer within the work. It inspires me to think about something I’m feeling or doing in a different light.


This article first appeared in the Spring 2003 edition of Dance Umbrella News

Donald Hutera writes regularly on dance, theatre and the arts for
The Times, Time Out, Dance Europe, Dance Now and Dance Theatre Journal.
He is co-author, with Allen Robertson, of The Dance Handbook.

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