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Merce Cunningham Dance Company

'Split Sides' and 'Fluid Canvas'

by Alyson Abriel

October 17, 2003 -- Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York City

"Fluid Canvas," first performed in London in 2002, made its New York premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York as part of their Next Wave Festival. Both this piece — and the world premiere of the much-anticipated "Split Sides" with music by the popular bands Radiohead and Sigur Ros — comprise a program that celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. The 84 year old choreographer has been at the forefront of the avant garde art and dance scene in New York for over half a century now, and chooses to remain there — creating new works which draw a crowd of young trend-setters and artists along with seasoned dance enthusiasts.

"Fluid Canvas"

John King’s music begins with a series of blurping and whizzing, the effect not unlike an Atari video game circa 1982. A group of dancers, clad in silvery-grey unitards, move independently of each other, echoing the blurps and other electronic sounds. Any interaction among the dancers appeared to stem from random circumstance. One or two couples may lean against each other yet there isn’t any deliberate narrative connection between them. The style of movement is reminiscent of a ballet in its body carriage and turned out legs, yet is much colder and mathematical in its execution. The dancers often hold their arms in straight lines with the torso erect. A tilt in the torso, or a circling of the leg, will change the lines that the dancers create onstage. They use their entire bodies in their movement, instead of a subtle gesture of the hand, or a disembodied leg moving on its own.

The moving backdrop to this electronic dance was Shelly Eshkar and Paul Kaiser’s motion-capture artwork. A projection of white dots danced and undulated behind the people onstage. These dots are a recording of sensors on Merce Cunningham’s hands. Cunningham himself has been performing with is company until fairly recently, and this type of motion capture work allows his presence in his pieces to continue. Eshkar and Kaiser’s collaborations with artists such as Cunningham and choreographer/dancer Bill T.Jones provoke one to think about simultaneous presence and absence. What is dance without a body, without gravity, without presence?

The overall effect in the beginning of "Fluid Canvas" is a meshing of individual elements into an undulating whole. There was no almost no hierarchy to the elements of dancers, art, and music though Cunningham chooses to present his work within the confines of the tradition proscenium of the stage, which creates a set of expectations that the dance carries the primary focus of meaning.

Midway through "Fluid Canvas" the costuming provided the most surprising moment of the dance. Suddenly, a dancer appears downstage left in a purple unitard to join the monotonous sea of grey. There were audible gasps from the audience with this simple introduction of a different color into the canvas. Cunningham shows how a simple formal element can be enough to elicit reaction. The audience has been conditioned to accept grey as the norm. The purple went against our preconceptions. My eye stayed on this particular dancer through the rest of the piece — and evening actually.

Gradually more purple unitards join the dancing until there are about fifteen dancers on stage. The music evolves from the electronic blurps and whizzing into a more percussive, almost club-like beat with some piano thrown in. The décor switched from the dots into something that resembled a crescent moon, which grew lengthwise into a portal-like form.

The company’s overall technique is turned out, strong and sure. Dancers would almost extend into a position, and then quickly retract, building a tension that never gets released. The music eventually sounds exactly like a jackhammer and becomes a bit annoying — but reinforces some of the tension embodied in the movements of the dancers. Cunningham does not satisfy the audience with any resolution in his work. This piece was a formal exploration of color and form, tension and release, though the overall impression was much broader and non-specific than any of these. Kaiser and Eshkar’s work adds an interesting element intellectually, though is visually non-descript and blends into the pastiche of elements onstage. Overall, it’s the impressive quality of the dancers themselves, who are all incredibly strong and controlled, which allows the audience to be pulled into this world of formal exploration.

"Split Sides"

"Split Sides" is a 40-minute dance, split into 20 minutes halves. There are two pieces of commissioned music by the bands Radiohead and Sigur Ros, two lighting plots by designer James F.Ingalls, two movements of choreography, two sets of costumes by James Hall— one black and white, and one color — and one backdrop each from photographer Catherine Yass — A Turner Prize nominee from England — and Robert Heishman, an 18 year old high school student who creates camera obscura images using cut out Braille letters. A roll of the dice determines the order that each element will appear in at the beginning of the evening. Mathematically, there are 32 possible versions of "Split Sides." These sorts of chance couplings often play a role in Cunningham’s process.

The order of the two dances was determined to be program “A” followed by “B.” The choreography was determined before the evening began in order for the dancers to have time to rehearse transitions. The dancers stand silhouetted against Robert Heishman’s backdrop. The unitards that the dancers wear all have variations of patterning in black, white, and grey. The lights quickly came up to full level, and revealed the stage, which was wintry and cold, rather like an ice palace from a science-fiction film. It was amazing how perfectly all the elements, created by different artists, and whose combinations were determined by chance, synthesized so well into a visual experience. It looked absolutely fantastic.

Radiohead’s sound collage was the music that accompanied the first half of "Split Sides" this evening. Although they usually play five-minute alternative rock music, for this commission, they recorded 20 minutes of electronic improvisation which was performed live on the opening night of performance. A voice — which sounded a lot like Tom Brokaw — was heavily mixed and manipulated, though you could make out certain words. Although the sound was so heavily manipulated that the words didn’t hold any meaning, the fact that the voice was obviously from a American newscast of some sort lend an air of currency to the piece, which otherwise looked otherworldly and divorced from anything real.

Cunningham technique is a meld of classical ballet, Graham technique, and chance. The dancers are all physically very strong and athletic, especially in the torso. The dancers all demonstrate a balletic stance of turnout from the hips, rather than the parallel legs often used in modern dance forms. The upper body is held slightly forward, which helps accommodate difficult weight transitions and aids balance. The dancers vary in age from their 20s through 50s. Many of them were obviously more classically trained than others, and had different lines in held positions. Some dancers had the rounded forms of classical ballet while others were angular. But all the dancers were strong and sure within the particular styles of their own bodies. The company moves in a staccato precision, mostly upright, without many rolls onto the floor or dramatic leaps.

I often found the choreography to be far more satisfying in the smaller group and solo sections. The dancers as individuals surfaced and often amused the audience with creative ways of moving through the space. One dancer grabbed her foot and exited the stage goofily hopping forward, which elicited many chuckles. All the duets and small group sections were incredibly strong. In a larger mass, the dancing all becomes homogenized, which helps to make the viewer’s perceptions of the solos and duets even more dynamic than they may have been otherwise. Cunningham never quite releases the tension and break from homogenization for the audience, yet he subtly sets up that expectation, and allows his dancers to give the audience some moments of release.

The second half of "Split Sides" (program B) was choreographically the most interesting of the evening. The segue was straightforward and quick:. the black and white backdrop simply lifted into the top of the stage to reveal Catherine Yass’ pastel pink and blue backdrop of diagonal lines. The dancers arrived onto stage in red and orange unitards with flared legs. The color contrast between the costumes and backdrop was a bit of a clash, yet created a visual buzz and energy which mimicked the increased tempo of the dancing. There was a lot of fast footwork and energy moving across the stage.

Sigur Ros created sounds by manufacturing an instrument which utilized ballet pointe shoes. The sound was light, musicbox like, and sweet. There were some sounds which sounded like a microphone dropping, and some other that were reminiscent of a crank, like a doll being wound up. With the dancers in their turned out positions, with stiff upper body and arm carriage, one is reminded of the many doll parts in the classical ballet. The partnering in the first duet in this section was exceptionally well done. A woman would almost extend into a position, and then blindly fall back into the arms of her partner. One could almost see her muscle fibers twitching in anticipation of a release which never came. One of the men had a particularly satisfying solo as well. His gaze at the audience was controlled, yet quiet. I could imagine that controlling the gaze in this type of dancing, with its lack of narrative structure, would be particularly difficult to master. The combination of choreography and music worked so well, I couldn’t imagine how the upbeat movement would work with the iciness of Heishman’s backdrop, though it would be worth seeing.

This building of tension is very subtly implied in Cunningham’s work, yet never comes to the forefront as a main design element. His work is non-specific, formal, surprising, and yet predictable at the same time. His die rolls are like the chaos, which forms order in nature. There’s no hidden agenda or message here, it’s all there to be experienced by the audience.

The upbeat quality of the second half of "Split Sides" ended the evening of dance on a high note. The audience showed a lot of appreciation toward this work and Cunningham looked quite pleased during his numerous curtain calls. He is able to work with so many unanswered questions and chance both in the content of the work and through his process of die-rolling, yet craft a piece of dancing with so much control and precision. This is masterful craftsmanship even though one gets the impression that Cunningham is still playfully exploring any and all possibilities before him. This is an evening of dance worth seeing many times, even though it will never be the same program twice.

Edited by Jeff.

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