Merce Cunningham Dance Company

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

by Jeff Kuo

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

Watching a performance of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company offers a pleasure perhaps unique to dance. A pleasure, no doubt, but also a paradox.

The processes of Merce Cunningham’s choreography -- the independence (not dependence) of dance to music and décor, the use of aleatoric compositional techniques, the influence of Life Forms, the Diaghilev-ean collaborations of fine visual and musical artists -- would seem to tap into an aesthetic that approaches the universal. From the reviews of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company's 50th anniversary season, I sense that the repertory maintains its ability to fascinate and engage. Yet, as robust as the repertory is -- and it is no mistake that it has achieved a canonical status -- it is at the last remove, a canon of one (or so it seems to me as mere spectator of the dance). But the current tour which features current works and revivals from the past show what a gorgeous canon of works it is.

The evening began with “Suite for Five” created 1956-58 with music by John Cage ("Music for Piano"), costumes by Robert Rauschenberg, and lighting by Josh Johnson (2002). It is perhaps not too difficult, even for a Cunningham novice like me, to sense that “Suite” belongs to the earlier history of the company. There is a theatricality that seems almost anachronistic.

The dancers were Jonah Bokaer, Ashley Chen, Paige Cunningham, Holley Farmer, and Jennifer Goggans. Christian Wolff was at the piano. The set was a monochrome white backdrop. The men were in what look like unitards with collars and buttoned fronts. The women in plain unitards. It began with a male solo in which he appeared to be looking or listening to something just outside our vision -- a suggestion of décor and story that seemed unfamiliar in the recent Cunningham repertory.

The port de bras seemed unfamiliar to me as well. There was the same concern with extreme extensions and line but the arms and legs had an anthropomorphic quality. Sometimes they were fluid and long, other times undulating like Medusa’s hair. “Suite” was perhaps the most overtly balletic Merce Cunningham work I have seen, in some measure vindicating the almost equal enthusiasm I have had for Merce Cunningham and Balanchine. The third section pas de deux contains lifts, supported poses, the man doubling the woman’s form. There was even a part where he partners her from behind in that self-effacing way common to ballet.

Like all Cunningham works, I’m never sure if I “get it” but that was never really the point of a Cunningham performance. Here is what I understand Merce Cunningham used to put in program notes for “Suite for Five.”

“The events and sounds of this dance revolve around a quiet center, which, though silent and unmoving is the source from which they flow.”

Does this help? You tell me.

“MinEvent” with Kronos Quartet came next. The music was "Thirty Pieces for String Quartet" (1983), décor by Robert Rauschenberg,(his 1994 "Immerse," a typical collage from the master), with lighting by Josh Johnson, and audio engineering by Scott Fraser. The Quartet was arranged around the audience with one each at the side of the stage fronts and the other two in the tier seats on each side of the hall.

The curtains rose to reveal the entire company arranged in rows and columns on the stage. The stage was bare all the way back. The company was costumed in jazz slacks, tank and halter tops with a comfortingly contemporary feel (do I dare wonder if all those Britney and Shakira bared midriff outfits filtered their way into this most fine of fine arts performances?).

I always feel "event-challenged,” being unfamiliar except with only the barest fraction of the repertory and handicapped with a non-dancer’s penchant for movement memory. I thought I saw snatches of “Winterbranch,” “Summerspace” (the beginning when a girl runs onto the stage), and “Rondo” (the sculptural arrangement of a trio of dancers on the floor). Significantly, one never tires of seeing Robert Swinston.

The final work was “Fluid Canvas” (2002) a U.S. premiere of a work co-commissioned by the Barbican Centre, London, and Cal Performances. For those who admired “BIPED,” the design was by Marc Downie, Shelley Eshkar, and Paul Kaiser. Costumes were by James Hall, lighting by James F. Ingalls. For those who remembered how “CRWDSPCR” acted more like a “crowd-chaser,” there was John King’s sonic score, longtermpiano.

The Downie/Eshkar/Kaiser Lifelike design started with the animated reflective globes of Bipeds swirling and flowing rather Jordan Belsen-like but settled down mainly to lines and suggested forms vaguely biomorphic, amoeboid and at times, rather piscine. They flutter, respire, undulate, tremble. King’s longtermpiano by contrast favored distinctly artificial sounds -- a piano processed and reprocessed, electronic blares, and CD-track-skipping sounds. Many of these were too loud, making one nostalgic for “CRWDSPCR.”

Cunningham never ceases to amaze. “Fluid Canvas” shows his interest in ensemble movement. The dancers never looked so good in their unitards of gunmetal grey or gunmetal blue with occasional understated bands of reflective material. Whoever said that a post-modern company mustn’t be concerned with glamour? Say what seems “PC” or not as one wills, but the extreme aesthetic of line and form that seemed to have preoccupied Balanchine and the ballet don’t seem unfamiliar in the company. Derry Swan, who had the one extended solo that impressed me, seems to have gone for the Banu Ogan-gelled hair look.

Cunningham’s preoccupation with movement, line, and form for its own sake defies reportage -- or at least mine -- but sitting in the very front row as I was, the evening’s works became an experience reminiscent of chamber music, fostering an ability to feel a familiarity that seemed to agree with post-modern dance’s critique of the traditional proscenium stage.

I am reminded of what Arlene Croce wrote about the company’s performances at their Westbeth studio: that some Cunningham works which seemed distant at the City Center became ravishing in the intimacy of the Westbeth studio.

Just so. If the dancers never looked so good, this show featuring past and present works showed that the repertory has never looked so good either. Merce Cunningham may be in a canon of one but with such a rep, who needs any more?

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.

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