Merce Cunningham Dance Company

'Fluid Canvas,' 'Interscape' Way Station,' 'Loose Time,' 'How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run'

by Stuart Sweeney

August 2002 -- Barbican Theatre, London.

As Merce Cunningham uses cryptic titles and disdains explanatory programme notes, we must all make our own interpretations of his complex work. In the recent visit of his company to London’s Barbican, as part of BITE:02 and Dance Umbrella, the collage backdrop to “Interscape” held a key for me in the form of a small image of the Parthenon, a masterpiece of architecture and mathematics. However, whereas the geometry of the Greeks or Petipa centres on symmetry, Cunningham focuses on asymmetrical explorations of personal and ensemble space and often uses prime number groups of 3, 5, 7 and even 11 dancers. Others will find their own themes in the work and perhaps this is one of the aspects that make his choreography so intriguing.

Amazingly for a dance maker in his 80s, four of the five pieces in the season were from the past 2 years. The first programme opened with the world premier of “Fluid Canvas”, dedicated to Val Bourne, the Director of Dance Umbrella. The work has the added interest of a computer based motion capture film by the same team of Marc Downie, Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser that produced the much admired front projection for “Biped”. Here, the film is used as back projection and is based on images of Cunningham’s hands which are then transformed into abstract shapes. Although lower key than “Biped”, the images work effectively with the dancers, although, as always with this choreographer, the two elements were produced independently to allow for chance effects.

The piece opens with four performers stationary and one in motion, but before long there is a flurry of movement across the stage and dancers everywhere. In the solos and ensemble sections that follow, including a series of trios, we see arms at full stretch and in semi-circles upwards or down or half and half to form an ogive. The dancers’ bodies are often tilted to one side and there are plenty of Cunningham’s fiendish balances. Overall I found much visual interest, but afterwards the movement in “Fluid Canvas” did not stay with me as long as some of the other choreography in the two programmes.

“Interscape” was the high spot of the week for me. Initially the dancers warm up behind a scrim decorated with a Robert Rauschenberg collage of abstract designs and classical images and when this is raised the same collage forms a backdrop. The piece has many ballet references with attitudes, spins and even grands jetées. In the middle there is an exquisite duet with sculptural angles and a sequence where the woman repeatedly falls backwards to be caught at the last moment. The abstract solo cello music by John Cage with many long pauses was brilliantly played by Audrey Riley and when Cunningham came on at the end there was a richly deserved standing ovation.

The second programme opened with “Way Station”. The bright alien tripod shapes by Charles Long distributed around the stage promised much, but the dance is Cunningham at his most severe with jerky movement creating an otherworldly landscape to a scratchy live accompaniment.

“Loose Time” is in sharp contrast with fluid, dancey movement and unusually an emphasis on duets, especially in the first half. There is a zippy feel to the piece and in one section waves of dancers are jumping and spinning. A fast solo by Holley Farmer with the most difficult balances and jumps made a strong impression.

The evening ended with something completely different. “How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run” dates from 1965 and is accompanied by Cunningham and David Vaughan reading one-minute vignettes sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly and sometimes together. The dance is playful and the performers’ bodies are more relaxed than in any of the other works we saw, with arms unconstrained by the geometric shapes from the other works. The narrators stole the show, but it was all so much fun that I’m sure none of the dancers minded being upstaged.

Across the two programmes many of the male dancers were outstanding and from the women Holley Farmer and Derry Swan were precise and powerful and lifted my spirits with the quality of their movement. Some find Cunningham’s lack of narrative or overt emotion a recipe for dehumanised dance. However, the joy on the faces of the dancers brought humanity to the performances for me. How lucky they and we are to be able to revel in stimulating new work from this master choreographer.


This review first appeared in Dance Europe magazine.


Edited by Jeff.

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