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Last night I went to see Merce Cunningham's 'Ocean' at the newly revamped Roundhouse in Camden. It was the opening night of the Dance Umbrella contemporary dance festival in London.

Ocean is performed on a round stage. Arriving at the Roundhouse felt like going to the circus. The audience sat all the way around the stage, and the 150-piece conductorless orchestra sat behind the audience all around the amphitheatre. It was very odd.

The music was by John Cage and David Tudor. Tudor had made loops of electronic music with sounds from the ocean to complement Cage's score. Foghorns and whale music featured heavily. There were digital clocks around the stage, and the dance lasted exactly 90 minutes.

I was amazed by the dancing. Fourteen dancers performed throughout, sometimes solo, sometimes in small groups and sometimes all together. Cunningham expects so much strength from his dancers. Often they would stay still in an arabeque on bent legs, or perform endless ronde de jambes en l'air. I could not imagine being able to remain so controlled throughout these difficult phrases. There were moments of pure beauty, which was enhanced by the foghorns and the oceanic lighting, which to me suggested a journey to the bottom of the sea.

However, it was a very long piece, especially as there was no interval, and I would estimate that about 15% of the audience walked out before it was over. John Cage is not for everyone (not for me either) and I could hear the orchestra giggling! I am glad I saw this, because it is quite a unique production, and it was very interesting to see Cunningham technique in such detail. However, I do not think I would go and see it again! Half the time I thought it was strangely wonderful that they were actually doing it, and the rest of the time I thought it was pretentious modernist rubbish!

I've found the other thread in this forum on what's to get about Cunningham and I really appreciated the idea that the choreography and the music don't have to coincide - they just happen.

Did anyone else go and see this, or have they seen it somewhere else? What did they think?

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I wish I had seen this a year ago in New York-- they staged it outside Lincoln Center in the summer, but the tickets were very expensive and sold out very quickly (I think there were 3 or less performances). I have heard it is very much an experience, and I am glad to see your reaction to it posted here.

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hello Kate b, I saw it here in berkeley Ca, where I think it had its american premiereyears and years ago now, but it was certainly a fantastic experience -- they did it in Harmon Arena, which is what they now call the UC basketball gym (as seen on TV), which made it in some ways evoke the good old days when modern dancers toured in station wagons and played in college gyms. Seating is in hte round, and at the top were ranged like 50 or 60 cellists -- can that be? -- and round the playing space were massed lots of mikes and amps and computer boards and techies and David Tudor was i think down there making hte music happen. Idon't think they darkened the theater -- maybe dimmed the lights, but all this visual hardware-hubbub remained in plain sight. Maybe they couldn't darken the house, I think there are big windows around hte top of hte gym. i guess there was stage lighting, I recall some effects that would not have been possible without it, but I've seen photos of performances in Belgium where the theater was very different - -they DID have dramatic lighting -- so i don't trust my memory about what happened HERE.

There were 4 huge tv monitors with blue screens and the time on them, and they counted backwards for hte 90 minutes the show ran. SInce there were no backs to your seats, it was tempting to look and see how long it would be till you got to stand up.

The dancers ran on and off through the same doors that athletes would use, I think there was only one entrance for them, as I remember. And of course merce makes it impossible for you trust your memory -- time passes as in a dream - -VERY PARTICULAR things happen, but you're not at all sure whether or not you really see them when they happen, and it would be real folly to be certain that what you remember is an accurate picture of an objective reality that was in fact just so.

But I do remember one dancer sitting like a deer at the edge of things, just like deer do (they come down into Berkeley all the time at night and hover around the edges of the lit areas around campus tennis courts and swimming pools) he was sitting in a perfect Graham swastika and looking over his left shoulder. Across the floor several people were doing something "together" -- maybe just at the same time and in close proximity.

I think the deer was Frederic Gafner (Foufois d'Immobilite), but maybe not. I DON'T think it was Tom Caley (sp?), who was in the company then. Dancers of that era -- Jeannie Steele, Banu Ogan, Emma Diamond ( I think).... Everything very clear, difficult, the dancers very alive and I loved the way in which they were aware of each other while each bearing up under the load of such technical difficulties. (Not that it's all always hard. I remember something - -Pond Way? where Banu just walked around like a flamingo, and she can do that till hte cows come home.)

I remember talking to Tom Caley at a party after another show in Berkeley -- he'd danced "Runes" that night, where he had the task of taking a perfect arabesque, fonduing deeply, and jumping straight up and landing just as deeply, and the line of his foot as it pointed beneath him was like a knife going into a wound. The entire operation was perfectly done, perfect. It was one of those "layout arabesques, and his body was like a table with one central leg, or a hydraulic lift -- the entire assembly rose straight up all in one piece like a car going up for a grease job, the knee straightened, the foot pointed, and the whole assembly descended, still absolutely horizontal. Unbelievable accuracy he had, and fabulous lines, a foot like oh Sylvie Guillem's, unbelievable arch to it -- and he said it was "the first time he'd ever seen light at the end of the technical tunnel."

Gotta run -- will maybe add more later.

Oh Kate B, If you don't know David Vaughan's book Merce Cunningham, 50 years, you must take a look at it. Vaughan's two great subjects are Ashton and Cunningham, and he's superb on both. There's a section on Ocean you must read, and the whole book will help you get a handle on why it is that Cunningham is despite the apparant imposture, really the real thing.

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Wow, Good times. :wink:

That was when my friend Matt Mohr was in the company. Along with Tom, China Laudisio, Cheryl Therrien, there was a real contingent from SUNY Purchase. I first saw Ocean in a studio showing, then at the Lincoln Center Festival. Freddy was still Freddy, I think, rather than Foofwa. I remember a legato section he did where three women bounded up and draped round him like the three graces. If you hummed "We love you Frederic, oh yes we do" - they'd hit the pose at the right time. . ."We love you Frederic, and we'll be true . . ."

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Freddy was still Freddy, I think, rather than Foofwa. I remember a legato section he did where three women bounded up and draped round him like the three graces. If you hummed "We love you Frederic, oh yes we do" - they'd hit the pose at the right time. . ."We love you Frederic, and we'll be true . . ."

John Cage would be so proud.


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Hi Paul et al. Thanks for your take on it. It was familiar.

I've been noticing that my experience of going to see dance has been changing - from being awestruck, to being technically critical (as I got better at my own dancing), to thinking hard about what it's saying as Art.

The Art thing is the hardest, because I don't think many of us are educated to think in such a critical way, so we have to educate ourselves.

I will check out the book you mention. Sounds right up my street.

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Hey Kate B -- what an interesting journey you are on. THe cool thing is you can think these things out for yourself, just wonder why it matters to you and how it affects you nad come up with your own understanding.

One thing that might intrigue you is to think of Ashton's Gymnopedies as somehow a response to his encounter with Merce Cunningham.

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