Merce Cunningham Dance Company

'Fluid Canvas'

by Lootie Bibby

10 September 2002 -- Barbican Theatre, London.

You can’t help feeling benevolent when the slow-moving, stick-bearing figure hobbles onto the stage to take his bow with the Merce Cunningham dancers. Somehow, with his shock of white hair, he shines. And somehow, the moment that this diminutive, arthritic, slightly fuzzy body stands alongside the agile, sharply delineated and focused bodies of the dancers, that sense of unity through extreme difference, which has become a profound informer of Cunningham’s style, springs to life. A simple moment, and not arguably even part of the evening’s work, yet a revealing and clarifying one that galvanises our sense of the choreographer’s personality and creative vision.

Cunningham’s newest piece “Fluid Canvas” premiered at the Barbican on Tuesday as part of Dance Umbrella. It is pervaded by these questions of unity versus difference, and of the random versus the planned; the pendulum of meaning swings between the effortless and the fraught. There is a tangible search for fluidity, seamlessness and balance in the style, yet in a world where focus never flows from one place to the next, but is forced to shift like clockwork, the search is constantly challenged and constantly belies itself as futile. Shapes are either straight or curved; bodies are either lifted or contracted; pathways are either direct or circular. The search for a middle space, for balance, turns itself into a rollercoaster of extremes: no gentle undulation of controlled rise and fall here, rather a sequence of giant leap to the apex, giant thump to the ground and giant hoist to the next apex.

A fluid canvas is in constant flux. The dancers, as visual objects, live out the fantasy of the piece’s title as endlessly shifting physical entities arranged and arrayed on a stage. Adding a further level, Marc Downie, Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser’s digital canvas provides a backdrop to the movement that is not simply a shifting singular entity, but that creates a two-fold layering of visual stimuli. The two canvases, like the two images that we can make out on single photograph with double exposure, have a unique meaning alone, and another in relation to each other. There is a sense of epiphany in the union of extremes, yet that achievement in Cunningham’s work, perhaps as in life, can only be left to random chance.

So, as the piece opens and we find a sea of digital stars framing five real figures in sparkling twilight blue, the two media seem to have a fundamental and integral connection. As the star-dots begin to sway and dance like a join-the-dots representation of real bodies, we expect echoing and interchange. But of course, what we actually get are slippery look-a-like moments when we create our own sense of correlation. Like the huge, silver eclipsing moon that ebbs in seeming tandem to a trio travelling across from stage right to stage left only to bleed into a curved and non-representative shaft of white light, meaning waxes and wanes as we wish it.

There is something deeply emotionally resonant about work that plays its audience with such grace and confidence. At one point, the digital artwork shows us the hands of a musician gently but masterfully manipulating an instrument. Of course, any rhythmic or melodic relation it bears to the actual mechanical sounds we hear onstage is not explicit. But Cunningham’s images are not to be taken at face value. The question it really provokes is about who and what is really being played during this performance. It is a thoughtful, talented and masterful choreographer who can build his instruments and create a symphony from not just a familiar group of dancers on the stage but from a first night audience.


Edited by Jeff.

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