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Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Harris Theatre

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Last night I attended the first of two programs of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the Harris Theatre, preceding it by listening to a talk by Bonnie Brooks, chair of the Dance Center of Columbia College, which brought Merce's company here. Brooks stressed, as she has before, the random element in Merce's art, exemplified most strongly by Split Sides on the evening's program, in which the order of five of the elements of the performance were decided by rolling a die on stage in front of us just minutes before it began while Merce presided at a lectern. (We could see the die via projected video.)

Indeed, there was a certain element of the unintended early in the history of Split Sides, before Merce had made any choreography and before the title was chosen: The company's executive director had suggested using a rock-band accompaniment for a dance, and both the bands Radiohead and Sigur Ros were contacted at the same time, rather than asking one and then, if they declined, asking the other. As it happened, both accepted. What to do? Use them both. One would play, and then the other. Why not make two of everything, for that matter? And so Merce made two twenty-minute dances instead of the intended forty-minute one, two designers (Robert Heishman and Catherine Yass) were engaged for decor, James Hall made two sets of costumes, and James F. Ingalls prepared two lighting plans for the two sections, and the sequence of the alternate parts of these five elements were to be determined before each performance, making thirty-two possiblities.

The one we saw last night began with Sigur Ros, the Yass decor (cool colors in vertical softly outlined strips), and black-and-white costumes, followed by Radiohead, the Heishman decor (pale green tones, soft lines outlining shapes like crumpled paper, punctuated by a black off-center disc, echoed by a disc hanging from the flies at the front), and colorful costumes mainly in rose and blue tones. This worked out quite well, the transformation from less to more color being very pleasant, although, being ignorant of rock music because the driving, monotonous beat of what I think of as rock music repels me, I wondered at times why what we heard was called rock, because that hard beat was conspicuous by its absence throughout, and what we got was (for me) easy-to-take gradually ebbing and flowing electronic and concrete sounds which never built up to ear-splitting volumes, either.

The program opened with Suite for Five, a spare piece from Merce's early years ("1956-1958") restaged in 2002 by Carolyn Brown, Merce, and Robert Swinston. John Cage's piano music for it was spare, too, and Robert Rauschenberg's unitards in appealing solid colors were the same. In its seven little sections it combined the five dancers differently, and charmed in itself as well as served as a crystalline introduction to the more elaborate productions to follow.

It closed with Sounddance, dating from 1975, restaged in 2003 by Meg Harper. I thought the name was familiar; sure enough, I recognised long stretches of it: It - or much of it - is included in the late-70s PBS Dance in America program "Event for Television" which had a commercial release on VHS a few years ago (and in which, if memory serves, Meg Harper - by chance - kicks an aluminum pillow in Rain Forest). I remembered the movement, but not Mark Lancaster's sumptuous designs - golden swags of heavy cloth hung over a rod about ten feet above the stage formed the background, and the dancers wore featureless tops of the same color and gray tights. Sounddance is about eighteen minutes long, all at a pretty fast clip; the dancers appear and disappear through a gap in the center of the background, which is closed by hanging strips, and perform in solos or small groups which assemble and dissolve in strategic places. I remember one moment when three dancers, all upright, holding hands in a line across the back of the space are led by a fourth, Robert Swinston, who interacts with the line, leads it further, and then the same business is repeated, while two groups of partly bent-over dancers dance in front. This was the trickiest dance to take in, I think, and so being in the concluding spot on the program it benefitted from our experience of what went before as well as having the grand excitement of the tempo and the gorgeous color of the design to make it suitable as a finale.

I haven't said more about the quality of the movement because, perhaps inevitably, it's the hardest to write about adequately. But I can say the degree of virtuosity here is generally high, most satisfyingly with Robert Swinston ("Assistant to Choreographer"), whose clearly nuanced dancing, as well as his long legs, made him stand out. I get a sense of sharper clarity from this company, compared to Paul Taylor's, whose dancers can be powerfully effective nevertheless; and this reminds me that in the pre-performance talk someone remarked that "Merce loves to rehearse." Nothing left to chance here. In Suite for Five, the boy in green looked, as a friend remarked, a little out of shape, but the boy in blue compensated us with some quietly and modestly presented but spectacularly impossible-looking moves and changes of balance. (As both appeared in all three dances, I had no way to work out who was who; Swinston I have seen conduct an introductory class.)

Grateful as I am to Brooks for her role in bringing Merce & Co. here, I think the emphasis in her approach to watching his dances, as she presented it before the program, is a little off. Her remarks were essentially analytical, though to her credit, she quoted Croce with approval, to the effect that the thing to do is not to analyze, just to enjoy. So I suppose the best thing about what she said was that it was self-contradictory! She barely touched on what I think is an essential consequence of the chance procedures she stressed, namely, coincidence, and I don't remember that she even used the word, though she encouraged us to put together what we see and hear ourselves, that is, to notice, or not, when elements seem to coincide, or to synchronize (another word she didn't use). Why then such emphasis on randomness in the process of making the stuff we are going to work with? To me, this was distractingly or even misleadingly analytic.

Actually, I thought there were remarkably long stretches of synchrony between music and bodily movement; this is an important part of how I look at dance (and other art), that is, to see if - or whether - and how the parts fit or relate. I remember that Balanchine reportedly often replied when asked for explanation of his choreography, "What did you see?" It was up to us. Or, "Tchaikovsky told me to." It was up to us to listen while we watched. In that TV program, Merce steps into the frame and says a few words, while the dancing goes on behind him. I think he mentions that we may be out walking and see a bird fly at the same time as we hear a whistle blow, and notice the coincidence. He remembers talking with some audience members after a performance, and one person told him how he had seen it. "And there was a Chinese man there, who said it looked Chinese to him." Merce looks satisfied, and steps back out of the frame. Sometimes, when I saw stretches of movement of a certain range and scale and tempo taking place while the accompaniment also corresponded in these ways, it looked Balanchinian to me.

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I get a sense of sharper clarity from this company, compared to Paul Taylor's, whose dancers can be powerfully effective nevertheless; and this reminds me that in the pre-performance talk someone remarked that "Merce loves to rehearse." 

Which reminds me in turn of the opening lines of Garrison Keillor's doggerel tribute. If memory serves --

There once was a dancer named Merce

Who loved, just loved to rehearse

All of his sections in different directions

And then do them all in reverse

Thanks for the review, Jack. It's remarkable that Robert Swinston is still dancing and dancing well. I watched the video of Merce's Beach Birds this week and couldn't help but wonder how Merce is doing. I hope the company comes back to The Kennedy Center soon!

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Merce has just returned from a trip to Japan to receive the prestigious. Praemium Imperiale Award. He is very well indeed.

"For the first time in the Award's 17 years' history, the Japan Art Association has made the announcement of this year's five Praemium Imperiale Awards Laureates in a ceremony in the Tokyo National Museum.

In an event presided over by former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, the names of the Laureates in the five categories were announced as follows: Painting: Robert Ryman; Sculpture: Issey Miyake; Architecture: Yoshio Taniguchi; Music: Martha Argerich; and Theatre/Film: Merce Cunningham." (from the announcement)

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Jack, Robert Swinston was dancing the role that was originally Merce's in Sounddance. I think the "boy in blue" in "Suite" was probably also dancing a role of Merce's--there is a fantastic duet for that dancer (and also a marvelous solo). I have seen the duet recently danced by Jonah Bokaer, partnering Lisa Boudreau. She is tall and very beautiful--reminds me of Cyd Charisse--and he is young, dark, handsome, slim, very precise placement, very fine dancer.

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