Weather or Not
Val Bourne and Daniel Roberts on Merce Cunningham at Tate
by Donald Hutera
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’
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
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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