Merce Cunningham Dance Company

'Suite for Five,' 'MinEvent' with the Kronos Quartet, 'Fluid Canvas'

by Mary Ellen Hunt

February 7, 2003 -- Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA

For some people, a performance of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company can be an adventure into the realm of purely distilled ideas about movement and time -- a kind of kinesthetic conceptual art -- while for others, it is a excruciating descent into pretension and boredom.

One way or another, though, the company's performance Friday at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley gave the audience the opportunity to reflect upon the 50-year history of that prestigious company and on the enduring influence of Merce Cunningham's kinesthetic conceptual art upon American modern dance.

As the three works on the program demonstrated, he presents an appealingly clean and sharply delineated choreographic style, demanding a high level of refinement and strength from his dancers. Still, his resistance to providing any context or plotline to his creations can be vexing, and his fascination with structuring a ballet around random chance strikes many as over-intellectual and stultifying. You have to know a lot about Cunningham to appreciate him.

For instance, one cannot speak of Cunningham, or of his longtime collaborator, composer John Cage, without discussing their interest with the aleatoric, or indeterminate, aesthetic in which a work is created by choosing the sequences of musical or choreographic phrases via a random process such as a roll of the dice or the I Ching. It's a method which this sometimes as like this writing sense as much makes. It can be wearying to spend two hours hoping to see a happy coincidence of music and dance occur onstage.

Of the three pieces on the program, probably the most highly anticipated was Cunningham's "MinEvent," which the Kronos Quartet accompanied live with Cage's 1983 commission, "Thirty Pieces for String Quartet."

With the musicians posted in various locales around the theater, there was the sense of being submerged into a pool of sounds, but it hardly seemed worth bringing the Kronos Quartet out simply to render the randomized squeaks and squawks of Cage's score.

Like other "MinEvents" that Cunningham has staged, sections of the work were drawn from older pieces such as "Ocean" and "Scenario," marshaled here in chance sequences with new choreography. On its own, Cunningham's angular, staccato choreography looks polished and elegant, with phrases of movement that are hypnotically beautiful against the Robert Rauschenberg set. At times, dancers would pause, unmoving, sometimes staring uncannily into the audience while others shifted in serendipitous patterns around them. Ultimately though, it's impossible to forget that this is essentially a plug-and-play ballet and that nobody, including the performers, knows really what's going to happen.

The current crop of Cunningham dancers is a resolute group, many with exquisitely strong technique. Some of them seem, however, to have taken Cunningham's philosophy of purely abstract movement, delivered with no preconceived ideas or narrative, a little too much to heart, with a resulting loss of humanity and distinctiveness.

Nevertheless, certain dancers -- among them Holley Farmer and Ashley Chen, as well as company veterans Jeannie Steele and Lisa Boudreau -- stand out for their dynamical qualities as well as a certain warmth as performers.

In "Suite for Five," -- a piece that has aged well since 1956 -- Chen took on Cunningham's role with assurance, executing his opening solo with impressive ease and control. Likewise, Farmer seemingly levitated her balances and her duet with Chen had an effortless floating quality.

"Fluid Canvas," which was co-commissioned by Cal Performances and the Barbican Center in London, closed the program. A slightly more vigorous work than the previous two, it is set to a score by John King that evokes raucous construction work, -- arranged aleatorically, of course. Interestingly, Cunningham himself "performs" with the company via a real-time, motion-capture video projection of his hands. But as with other elements of the program, if you weren't in on the background, the piece might look merely random.

This article was first published on February 9, 2003 in the Contra Costa Times

Edited by Jeff.

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