Merce Cunningham died last month. (Did Michael Jackson really start a wave of celebrity deaths?) It only came to my attention now that in June, Microcinema released a DVD of two permutations of Split Sides, which I had the pleasure of seeing in 2005. I’ve seen the company since, but that was the performance that left a real impression. If you think $40 is a bit much to pay for a DVD, even if it includes two performances, they are also offered on Netflix!
I thought I’d reprint some thoughts I wrote down after seeing the performances. (Blogging is in my blood, you see.)
Friday and Saturday night I went to see Merce Cunningham. His technique tends to get an initial reaction of “you call that dancing?!” I didn’t immediately like it, but it grew on me. A dancer at a pre-performance panel said that the Cunningham technique involves being ready to move in any direction from any movement. He choreographs with a software program called Lifeforms, which helps him come up with unconventional and very difficult steps that look deceptively simple.
I think this is why some people left at the intermissions — the dancers’ muscle adjustments were clearly visible due to the difficulty of the steps and Cunningham doesn’t like his dancers to prepare for turns, but since the steps don’t look difficult the dancers appear to suck, an impression that’s exacerbated by the fact that the company is composed of dancers of all shapes and sizes; there’s definitely no thin/lanky aesthetic there. Of course, they didn’t suck.
The interactions of the dancers seemed more organic and natural than other companies — they supported each other and used each other as axes but also very readily split apart and did their own thing. I liked having a visual buffet of different movements and spaces on stage to choose from, and if you pay attention, the pieces have structure and repetition.
They were dressed in bright single color body suits in the first piece (1956’s Suite For Five), and on the first night the man in green was plump, which had the hilarious effect of jolliness. Especially since a lot of the moves involved hopping. Green Giant? The second night a slim dancer took his place and it was a wholly different effect. In the second piece, Views For Stage, the set could only be described as globs of milk dripping from the ceiling and a big sleepy rodent head on stage.
Split Sides, with its booming music (I was sitting right in front of the left stage speaker, which I thought would cause me great pain but just ended up being totally hot), was almost cathartic after an hour of piano plinks and occasional dissonant horn blasts. At the beginning of the night the curtain had risen to reveal Cunningham, who says in a deliberate, almost noble voice: “Ladies. and. gentlemen. We are here. To cast the die.”
So they cast the die to determine the order of the dance lighting, costume, set and music changes. There were ballet shoes set up in the orchestra pit, so out of curiosity, I approached the music director for the company, Christian Wolff. He told me they’d be used for improvised clicks, rubs and percussive strikes during the Sigur Ros. The Radiohead is played as is, though it is mixed live. On the second night I can’t resist dawdling near all the mixing equipment in the pit again as he shows his piano scores to someone. There are no measure delineations and the notes are sparse. There are no set rhythms, so he just ‘estimates’ what the spacings mean. There is no coordination of music and dance; apparently Merce is obsessed with “chance happenings and procedures.”
I ask him why Merce wants any music at all if the performances are completely independent of each other, and Wolff can only say that to Merce the music is like decor. No one really knows what’s going on in Cunningham’s head since he never talks about how he wants a piece to look or even what it’s about. By doing different combinations you can happen on moments of briliiance (like the Bokaer solo), but then why not just methodically go through the combinations? You’re more liable to repeat yourself and explore fewer possibilities if you leave it up a die. Wolff notes that Cunningham of course knows the work of the people he asks to contribute so it’s not completely random.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see a different combo of dance and music; only the order of the lighting and costume changes was different on the second night. Dance B set to Sigur Ros was followed by dance A set to Radiohead on both nights. The Sigur Ros felt more coherent in the context of the dance, but Radiohead exploited speaker placement.
Jonah Bokaer’s solo in dance B with the black and white costumes may have been the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I was right up close in the third row, and every aspect of the performance — sound, visuals, movement — came together so perfectly. The moves were fluid and without the constraints of classical dance but contained semi-birdlike jerky little flourishes that fit in perfectly with Sigur Ros’ electronic sounds. The abstract black and white costume — Pollock in bodysuit form? — also evoked machines.
The second night, he did it in a color costume and I was sitting farther away, so it wasn’t the same, but I’ve mentally saved his image; from now on it will be a Bokaer body that does my mental dancing. According to the program, he is also a volunteer librarian, choreographs on his own, and won a humanitarian award. Wow.
RIP, Merce. You danced before my time so I’ll have to take other people’s word that you were great, but your company certainly is great, not the least for letting scientists attachment sensors to their bodies in order to study human movement!