Production photographs of BIPED by Tony Dougherty
Suite for Five (1956-58) by Merce Cunningham. Music by John Cage (Music for Piano 4-19, performed by Christian Woolf), costumes by Robert Rauschenberg, lighting by Beverly Emmons.
eyeSpace (2006) by Merce Cunningham. Music by Mikel Rouse, set and costumes by Daniel Arsham, lighting by Josh Johnson. Soundscape realised by Stephan Moore and David Behrman.
BIPED (1999) by Merce Cunningham. Music by Gavin Bryars (performed by Josephine Vains, Takehisa Kosugi and John King), decor by Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser, costumes by Suzanne Gallo, lighting by Aaron Copp.
Let me say, right up front, that I had stupidly high expectations of this my first live encounter with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. This triple bill more than met those expectations. If I had world enough and time, I'd see it again tonight...
It has a work from the mid fifties (described in various references as one of Merce's "intellectual" works), one that premiered last year, and the large-scale ensemble work BIPED
It goes from minimal to maximal; from John Cage's music for treated piano (and consumptive audience) to something lush from Gavin Bryars; from single dancer in a blue-lit empty space to squad of thirteen with projections and animations.
The oldest choreography, paradoxically, is the most strikingly modern. It looks like it has been created using wire-frame animation. (Good old fashioned pipe cleaners, one imagines, in the pre-PC fifties!) The first dancer, poised and forward-leaning from his tiptoes -- looking uncannily like a young Merce right down to his sensible and authoritative toes -- moves as if flicked by an unseen hand of god. (I believe this superlative dancer is Daniel Madoff. The cast is listed alphabetically and there are no photographs, so it's hard to tell. Madoff has been with MCDC just two months!)
In the second solo, Holley Farmer makes curly brackets in the air as she tilts. She freezes and moves on. She holds her arms back as if they've been flung there and time has been stopped. I want her to smear the air as she moves through it with her second-hand ticking attitude.
The trio (Jonah Bokaer, Julie Cunningham, Marcie Munnerlyn) and subsequent sections make sly nods to Balanchine with their playful prancing, tiny digital duets, sublime limbs and controlled goose-stepping... So many ideas, so many zygotes (as Ani DiFranco might call them) of full-length works!
The five dancers are at the service of this oddly-disembodied choreography. They use their limbs to write Cunningham's name. They don't embellish the dance with their own 'personality', for want of a better word. Yet for all its cool abstraction this choreography is anything but alienating. It's intellectual in the same way that Stravinsky is... or John Cage is.
Robert Rauschenberg's mouthwatering costumes (especially the blackcurrant and spearmint cossies) help "keep it real" as does Beverly Emmons fleshy lighting. The bodies are never less than individual. And, certainly, never less than human. Even when the movement is superhuman.
eyeSpace, which premiered last October, applies Merce's devotion to spin-the-bottle randomness in a characteristically contemporary way. Individual audience members are wired for sound. (You can either bring your own MP3 player with music downloaded from the MCDC web site or book ahead and use one of the company's own.) We shuffle-play five short pieces from Mikel Rouse's International Cloud Atlas. That gives 120 possible combinations. (5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1) So, in a 2000-seat theatre, there might only be 15 others who have the same experience as you.
This is a classic modern dance experiment. I've seen Rebecca Hilton do something like this... perform a piece with and without music to invite audiences to examine their aesthetic consciences. (I also remember challenging her hard at the time: the music actually changed how she performed the piece! She denied it equally vigorously!) Here, though, the twelve dancers have an industrial soundscape that's quite independent of what we're hearing, removing that crucial variable.
On one viewing, I'm reluctant to make a call... but, it seemed to me, when one of those tense, straining, gestures was repeated, it was just a pose held. But it might have been the music that lost its isometric hold! Later, in an unrelated section, the dancers grew taller. (I swear!) Daniel Arsham's designs -- glistening silver blue costumes and a backward tilted cityscape with a telescoped building coming apart -- are very fine.
It's a lot to take in, at one hit, but it's a fascinating experience. The choreography is pretty unremarkable -- just damn fine barefoot ballet -- but it's thrillingly well executed.
Last up is the massive BIPED, which puts 13 dancers behind a scrim on which lights and animations are projected. In one of the early projections, the bodies of a couple of dancers have been reduced to lines. Not wire frame sticks. Major muscles in the thigh and calf are rendered as curves. It's as if we're watching an ecorche, a peeled body, a muscular system in action.
Later, we see dancers as if from above, reduced to dots of light. On another occasion, a body is reduced to a series of parallel lines, like a spectrometer or VU meter. The movement is broken down to interference bands. Analysed.
Yet even here, there is a sensuousness in the execution of the choreography, perhaps as a counterpoint to the abstraction. Aaron Copp's lighting adores the bodies. And Suzanne Gallo's limby costumes gives us plenty of real live musculature to watch and admire.
The duration of the piece -- it must be close to fifty minutes -- also adds to our kinaesthetic connection to the dancers. They seem inexhaustible. The piece reaches a kind of crescendo perhaps five or ten minutes before the end as the dancers circle, leap exuberantly and flick their feet like bucking colts.
The motion capture projections are, initially at least, quite intrusive. But they give the performance an unexpected extra dimension and, remarkably (given their extreme abstraction), become like additional cast members.
Dance audiences in Melbourne are sparing in their ovations, but when Cunningham himself was wheeled on, we stood for him. It's taken six decades for his company to get to Melbourne, but he did us the courtesy of joining them here.
The second and final performance of this triple bill is tonight.
Tomorrow and Saturday, MCDC performs two recent works: Views on Stage (2004) and Split Sides (2003).
eyeSpace can also be seen at Theatre de la Ville as part of the Festival d'automne a Paris, from December 4-12, 2007.
Labels: Christian Woolf, Daniel Madoff, David Behrman, Gavin Bryars, George Balanchine, John Cage, John King, MCDC, Melbourne Festival, Merce Cunningham, Mikel Rouse, Rebecca Hilton, Robert Rauschenberg