Metallic industrial, organic robotic, digital bug, fluttering verbs.
Form can sometimes be constricting, only allowing for certain expressions while disallowing others. While watching Merce Cunnigham Dance Company perform, I could not align what I was watching with any concrete words. How to translate a dance performance into a concise review seemed like a daunting task, but alas, I will do my best.
For those of you unfamiliar, Merce Cunningham is one of the most innovative choreographers of the last century. Spanning across genre and discipline, Merce Cunningham is perhaps most known for his longtime collaboration with partner and radical composer, John Cage, also working with fellow artistic visionaries such as Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, and Warhol. The Legacy Tour honors Cunningham, who passed away in July 2009, as well as his 70 years of expansive work. Culminating in 2011 with the disbanding of the company, this is the last time his work will ever be performed and UMS was one of the lucky few locations to host the Company. (Check out this Merce Cunningham Interview)
The curtain was up before I had time to anticipate what was hiding behind it. Blinding spotlights on impossible elevation of cinderblock walls. Large green recycling bins and containers, exposed with sheet metal and wooden planks. As anyone’s guess, this was the natural look of the Power Center. My attention was drawn to an acrylic white court surrounded by luminescent astroturf as 4 dancers in steely athletic wear arched across space, while many others watched in the background.
The first half of the show was dedicated to Squaregame (1976). As the title implies, bodies moved effortlessly as if treading water in some moments, while the court and corners played integral points of interaction. Canvas duffle bags transitioned along the stage while dancers took turns performing and watching. One dancer in particular, in a silvery purple shirt, lead movement to the point of being held back by two dancers encircling him as he bicycled upward. A trio of dancers expanded like genomes on stage as one dancer writhed about them. The music (Takehisa Kosugi) escalated simultaneously, at one moment feeling as if I was inside a turbine, with the words “wake up” droning on incomprehensibly. Progressively more chaotic as dancers stopped watching and began joining together, the stage began to look like organized clockwork, with groups moving inconsistently but still synchronous in pattern.
And just like that it was over, but its impression lives on through memory.
After intermission, the audience was treated to a second performance completely reliant on chance. Split Sides (2003) begins with a literal roll of the dice, deciding which dance, costumes, music, lighting, and set will coexist. With 32 possibilities, I still felt as if everything was the way it was meant to be while watching. The first side opened with low-light paths of color and pattern while wind-up dreamlike lullabies escalated in the background (courtesy of fan favorite, Sigur ros) Reminiscent of music boxes, the music implied a puppet-like, robotic quality to the movement. With many pairings and solos, the talent of the dancers is clear, stretching their bodies in impossible positions, causing a reexamination of what is humanly attainable. The subtle movements quickly escalate into an outburst of tribal energy resolving in the coming metamorphosis into the nightfall of side 2.
With the eerie but recognizable Radiohead buzzing ethereally through the theater in a sometimes disturbing quality, the black and white texture of side 2 amplifies its robotic taste. The costumes look like alien skin with bifurcating lightning captured in pattern that changes as the dancers jerk in synchronicity. At one moment, two dancers mirror each other’s movements just offset slightly under the glowing orb as they each slowly exit off stage, the latter only recognizable by silhouette.
Left breathless after the curtain falls, I felt a strong appreciation of chance. Not only the chance and role of cause and effect, but also the chance opportunity of seeing this performance as well as the chance of expectation and actuality that underlies any experience. A truly inspiring and indescribable show, Cunningham’s legacy will no doubt live on and continue to inspire creation of all forms.