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Merce Cunningham At 100

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The Kennedy Center belatedly celebrated the 100th anniversary of Merce Cunningham's birth by presenting a completely forgettable performance of 2 of Cunningham's works. The dancing, such as it was, was performed by a company called Compagnie Centre National de Danse Contemporaine - Angers, whose AD, Robert Swinston, re-created the dances.

The first work was titled Beach Birds. The object here apparently was mimic birds on a sandy beach. So the piece mainly consisted of dancers standing with the arms extended and occasionally hopping around. It might look cute to see birds hopping around, but having people do it just looked silly. The piece was set to "music" that was "composed" by John Cage. The "music" was only slightly more interesting than Cage's 4 Minutes, 33 Seconds, since the pianist actually did occasionally play a note (perhaps a couple of hundred notes over the course of 25 minutes).

The second piece was titled BIPED. This one actually featured dancing and was accompanied by actual music, albeit droning ambient music. The creativity in this piece was limited to the staging, since it including a scrim in front on which light patterns and computer graphics were displayed. Unfortunately, the graphics didn't obscure the fact that the choreography was pretty basic and that there didn't seem to be a point to any of it other than to fill up time, and time it did fill up - dragging on and on for about 55 minutes.

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Here's a longer extract from Beach Birds for Camera* You can access the full length version in the Merce Cunningham Trust's Beach Birds dance capsule. (You can also access videos of many of Cunningham's notable works in their respective dance capsules. Biped is among them. The Trust's capsules are an amazing resource.)

* Beach Birds for Camera is a variant of Beach Birds. It was filmed in two different settings. The first portion of the film is in black and white; the second is in color. You can read more about the film here

Cards on the table: I adore Beach Birds—the movement, the stillness, the music, the costumes, the whole thing. I think it is very beautiful, even when it's not conventionally pretty. But then I'm a Cunningham and Cage fangirl, and consider it a privilege to have been alive when both of these great artists were creating new work. 

Dance goers who are new to Cunningham—especially those whose primary lens for dance-watching has been fine-tuned for ballet—might find a work like Duets an easier point of entry into the Merce canon. (Duets is in ABT's rep, and I believe, in Washington Ballet's as well.) 

 

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If you're new to Cunningham's work, you might also appreciate the documentary "When the Dancer Dances."  It follows along as the Stephen Petronio company learns Cunningham's Rainforest (with an evocative set by Andy Warhol) -- there's a great deal of discussion about what makes the repertory important, and how it is distinct from other dance styles.  Plus you see many key sequences taken apart to be taught, which makes it extra exciting to see in performance at the end of the film.

I'm also a Cunningham/Cage fangirl, so there's that, but once you start to watch, there are all kinds of connections to the highly refined and virtuosic world of ballet.

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13 hours ago, sandik said:

If you're new to Cunningham's work, you might also appreciate the documentary "When the Dancer Dances." 

Along similar lines, Elliot Caplan documented the creation of and rehearsals for Cunningham's 1993 work CRWDSPCR. Cunningham used the choreographic software program LifeForms to create the dance. From the notes to Caplan's film:

At age seventy, Cunningham became the first choreographer of international renown to create work in dialogue with software technologies, when he was forced to explore the limitations that severe arthritis imposed upon his own freedom of movement. Cunningham's use of the computer has been described as an extension of his interest in integrating vernacular movement into the context of the dance. In CRWDSPCR, dancers aim at exact angles with their arms and feet, changing phrases quickly and methodically, as though transitioning from one keyframe to the next. These movements seem directly influenced by the shapes and rhythms of the LifeForms figures.

You can find the complete film in the CRWDSPCR dance capsule.

Here's a brief CRWDSPCR performance clip: 

And here's about a half hour of rehearsal footage:

 

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If this were Facebook, I would be posting a heart.

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On 10/3/2019 at 11:27 PM, YouOverThere said:

The Kennedy Center belatedly celebrated the 100th anniversary of Merce Cunningham's birth by presenting a completely forgettable performance of 2 of Cunningham's works. The dancing, such as it was, was performed by a company called Compagnie Centre National de Danse Contemporaine - Angers, whose AD, Robert Swinston, re-created the dances.

The first work was titled Beach Birds. The object here apparently was mimic birds on a sandy beach. So the piece mainly consisted of dancers standing with the arms extended and occasionally hopping around. It might look cute to see birds hopping around, but having people do it just looked silly. The piece was set to "music" that was "composed" by John Cage. The "music" was only slightly more interesting than Cage's 4 Minutes, 33 Seconds, since the pianist actually did occasionally play a note (perhaps a couple of hundred notes over the course of 25 minutes).

The second piece was titled BIPED. This one actually featured dancing and was accompanied by actual music, albeit droning ambient music. The creativity in this piece was limited to the staging, since it including a scrim in front on which light patterns and computer graphics were displayed. Unfortunately, the graphics didn't obscure the fact that the choreography was pretty basic and that there didn't seem to be a point to any of it other than to fill up time, and time it did fill up - dragging on and on for about 55 minutes.

I have the feeling Cunningham knew his work would work for a specific audience/fashion within a specific time frame, and that after that it would be seen as a vintage rarity. Hence his desire for a troupe dissolution at a specific time. 

I can appreciate his work as I appreciate Duchamp's "Fountain". As a curious memento from the art form.  But nothing beyond that....and in small dosages, IMHO.

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Posted (edited)
1 hour ago, cubanmiamiboy said:

I have the feeling Cunningham knew his work would work for a specific audience/fashion within a specific time frame, and that after that it would be seen as a vintage rarity. Hence his desire for a troupe dissolution at a specific time. 

I think it's more than OK if Cunningham's work just doesn't work for someone (it doesn't work for Robert Gottlieb for example), but I for one hope that it will continue to be taught, staged, and performed regularly for many, many decades to come. It deserves to be more than a vintage rarity, although one could make that claim for any number works that have unjustly slipped into obscurity—and that, unfortunately, applies to many art forms, not just dance. (We almost lost Herman Melville, for instance. By 1876 all of his work was out of print and he was considered a minor writer until the 1920s-30s, when there was a major revival of interest in and critical appreciation of his work.)

Cunningham didn't want his work to die with him. He may have dissolved his company, but he did create a very active and robust trust to "actively share his legacy and offer it to future generations." In addition to maintaining the materials and licensing structure necessary to restage Cunningham's works, the Trust also offers "classes and workshops in Cunningham's technique, repertory, and choreographic methods to dancers and the public, keeping interest and practice alive," which is equally important. Thirteen bucks will get you into a daily class taught by a former Cunningham company member

Many Cunningham dancers are now choreographers in their own right, and while they aren't, by and large, "mini-Merces," his art lives on in theirs. (Pam Tanowitz didn't dance with Cunningham, but she did study with Viola Farber, one of Cunningham's original dancers. The throughline to Cunningham is evident in her work, even though she definitely has her own voice.) 

One of the side benefits of the Cunningham Centennial was putting Cunningham's choreography into the bodies of dancers who never worked with him—including Sara Mearns, who appears to have embraced the opportunity to dance his work with fearlessness and joy:

"After performing her third solo, Ms. Mearns went into the hallway and cried. (She isn’t the type to hide her emotions on or off the stage.) “It was out of pure joy,” she said. “I put everything I could into it and I took chances, and I couldn’t believe it when I came off. I haven’t had that feeling in a very long time.”

Will ADs, dancers, and audiences hold on to their Centennial enthusiasm for another decade or another century? Who knows? But for the moment, at least, he lives on.

Edited by Kathleen O'Connell

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I really can't see his works staged "regularly", and even less "for decades and decades", I'm afraid. His style is one that might not attract the big bucks for a ballet company, nor the proper amount of ballet lovers enough to make it a staple for a company. Graham struggles to survive, so does Tudor and even Ashton modern pieces.  I can see Cunningham following. XXI Century seems to keep digging more and more into Petipa, as its timeless core seems to have no end. 

Maybe that's the key word here. "Timeless" Sleeping Beauty vs "timed" Beach birds....?

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4 hours ago, cubanmiamiboy said:

I really can't see his works staged "regularly", and even less "for decades and decades", I'm afraid. His style is one that might not attract the big bucks for a ballet company, nor the proper amount of ballet lovers enough to make it a staple for a company. Graham struggles to survive, so does Tudor and even Ashton modern pieces.  I can see Cunningham following. XXI Century seems to keep digging more and more into Petipa, as its timeless core seems to have no end. 

Maybe that's the key word here. "Timeless" Sleeping Beauty vs "timed" Beach birds....?

Summerspace has never really left the repertory. NYCB just revived it. I think Cunningham's dance vocabulary will live on in modern choreographers. His focus on sculptural stillness, animal shapes and direction turning jumps are all over modern dance's DNA.

No matter what you think of his work this is a striking, unforgettable pose:

Homepage_3.jpg

As is this:

summerspace4.jpg

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4 hours ago, cubanmiamiboy said:

I really can't see his works staged "regularly", and even less "for decades and decades", I'm afraid. His style is one that might not attract the big bucks for a ballet company, nor the proper amount of ballet lovers enough to make it a staple for a company.

I wouldn't expect Cunningham to be a ballet company staple. But ballet companies aren't the only dance companies out there, nor is the audience for dance limited to those who only like ballet.  

There are Cunningham works that a ballet company might tackle with some reasonable expectation of success, e.g. Duets, Summerspace, Septet, maybe Antic Meet. But frankly, I think his work would be better served by companies and organizations that make their home in other dance forms. 

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10 minutes ago, Kathleen O'Connell said:

I wouldn't expect Cunningham to be a ballet company staple. But ballet companies aren't the only dance companies out there, nor is the audience for dance limited to those who only like ballet.  

There are Cunningham works that a ballet company might tackle with some reasonable expectation of success, e.g. Duets, Summerspace, Septet, maybe Antic Meet. But frankly, I think his work would be better served by companies and organizations that make their home in other dance forms. 

Could Alvin Ailey be a proper repository...? They have a very well established, loyal following.

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We all know it's not really great if The Trocks haven't blessed it with a send-up, and Cage/Cunningham is no exception. Patterns in Space is a hoot, although the on stage musicians never fail to steal the show. (Choreography after Merce Cunningham / live music after John Cage per the credits.)

 

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10 minutes ago, Kathleen O'Connell said:

We all know it's not really great if The Trocks haven't blessed it with a send-up, and Cage/Cunningham is no exception. Patterns in Space is a hoot, although the on stage musicians never fail to steal the show. (Choreography after Merce Cunningham / live music after John Cage per the credits.)

 

OMG...! I remember that was basically the reaction of some of us when the company did their farewell tour! I saw it here in Miami, and after being aggravated and having fought with an usher for a chair for my mom-( the thing was presented with the audience "encouraged" to seat on the stage floor around the dancers)- I couldn't decide if I had to laugh or to cry at the choreo. I didn't have any previous reference whatsoever of the man and his work, and was expecting something along Taylor or Ailey lines. 

Needless to say, we left early.  

But this comical approach seems to be the best incarnation of the work.😁

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9 minutes ago, cubanmiamiboy said:

Could Alvin Ailey be a proper repository...? They have a very well established, loyal following.

I know that some Ailey company members participated in "Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event," but I don't know if there are any plans to incorporate what those dancers performed into the Ailey repertory. The list of choreographers Ailey has drawn upon for its repertory is long and distinguished, but they tend to be positioned along very different branches of the modern dance tree—the ones that are more theatrically kinetic and forward-facing than Cunningham often is. I could see them adding a "MinEvent" (a sequence of excerpts from Cunningham works) to their rep, but not their acting as a true repository. Two French companies, CNDC/Angers and Lyon Opera Ballet seem to be at the forefront of Cunningham preservation. A lot of dance schools and university-based dance programs do license Cunningham's work for educational purposes. You can find a list of professional and educational licensees here.

 

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31 minutes ago, cubanmiamiboy said:

Needless to say, we left early.  

But this comical approach seems to be the best incarnation of the work.😁

Like I said, there's no shame in not liking Merce, and life's too short to sit through something you don't like. 

I happen to think The Trock's take on Swan Lake is the best incarnation of that particular work, so we're even. 😉 (Yes, I'm the one ballet goer in the universe who loathes Swan Lake with the heat of a thousand burning suns.)

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Stephen Petronio's company (featured in When the Dancer Dances) has a couple of Cunningham works in their repertory right now -- while Petronio doesn't feel that his own choreography resembles Cunningham's, he does believe that Cunningham forged a pathway for modern dance that created the Judson Church cohort, and made space for innovation in the field when many of the "classic" modern choreographers had become stagnant.  It is hard to imagine what current modern dance practice would be like without Cunningham's blazing examples.  I agree that, while they are phenomenally well-trained, the Ailey company is not the natural fit for this work -- in general, they are too attached to dance as emotional expression or narrative.  People sometimes think that ballet companies would be a more natural fit since both techniques seem to share an alert uprightness, and an acceptance of dance as an absolute, abstract art, but I think that does both traditions a disservice. 

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Posted (edited)
21 hours ago, cubanmiamiboy said:

I really can't see his works staged "regularly", and even less "for decades and decades", I'm afraid. His style is one that might not attract the big bucks for a ballet company, nor the proper amount of ballet lovers enough to make it a staple for a company. Graham struggles to survive, so does Tudor and even Ashton modern pieces.  I can see Cunningham following. XXI Century seems to keep digging more and more into Petipa, as its timeless core seems to have no end. 

Maybe that's the key word here. "Timeless" Sleeping Beauty vs "timed" Beach birds....?

We'll be seeing NYCB Summerspace at the Kennedy Center since that and Peck's Principia are on the same program as the Balanchine-Robbins Firebird [music Stravinsky, sets/costumes Chagall].  I'd prefer to see it as originally staged by Cunningham on NYCB when Balanchine ran NYCB.  Pointe and wind chimes in the wings.  

NYCB Summerspace https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/629a9eb0-fa9f-0133-a636-00505686a51c/book?parent=efd9d220-fa9e-0133-554d-00505686a51c#page/57/mode/2up

Congrats on your successful NYCB random Nutcracker and the happy Miami with the beautiful family.  We had great luck with a TWB random which has cardinals to Marzipan.  Reading this thread has been quite bird oriented.  I didn't see the grounded birds in the KC Biped and Beach Bird.

 

Edited by maps

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