Merce Cunningham Centennial: Night of 100 Solos

Posted: April 21st, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Merce Cunningham Centennial: Night of 100 Solos

The Merce Cunningham Centennial, Night of 100 Solos, Barbican, April 16

Merce Cunningham
Merce Cunningham (photo by Annie Leibovitz)

To celebrate the centenary of Merce Cunningham’s birth on April 16, the Merce Cunningham Trust live-streamed three shows in three cities (Los Angeles, New York and London) that each presented 25 dancers performing 100 solos from the Cunningham repertoire. In London’s Barbican, where the Merce Cunningham company had performed regularly for the last 20 years of its life, Daniel Squire (with help from Ashley Chen and Cheryl Therrien) arranged extracts from 54 works, the earliest being Dime a Dance (1953) and the latest Nearly Ninety (2009), to fit within a 90-minute format. The idea of presenting solos as a collage without the context of their parent works follows one that Cunningham had devised whenever the company performed in a non-theatrical venue like an art gallery or a gymnasium. Despite the paradox of creating this event in a proscenium theatre it nonetheless offers an opportunity to savour the extraordinary richness of Cunningham’s choreographic thinking over a fifty-year period. As dance critic Edwin Denby wrote in 1968, ‘Seeing Merce is always a very great pleasure.’

Denby had attended Cunningham’s very first program of solo dances in New York in April 1944, describing their effect as ‘one of an excessively elegant sensuality’ that contrasted with ‘one of remoteness and isolation’. These two qualities, both alone and in combination, could well define the range of solos chosen for the Barbican along with an all-embracing sense of playfulness and wit that point to one of the basic tenets of Cunningham’s work. In his last recorded interview with Nancy Dalva Cunningham responds with the nonchalance of accumulated wisdom to a question about what dance means to him: ‘We look out at life and that’s dance.’ 

The Cunningham company was famously disbanded as part of its founder’s legacy plan following his death in 2009, so although there are seasoned performers like Squire and Julie Cunningham on hand, this centennial celebration is staged with dancers who have never been part of Cunningham’s company even if some of them have studied his technique. The Merce Cunningham Trust explains that ‘in each city, a former dancer experienced in creating Cunningham Events will work with an associate stager and other Merce Cunningham Dance Company alumni to impart the choreography to a new generation of dancers.’ There is more public relations than clarity in this statement as such luminaries as Siobhan Davies, Michael Nunn, William Trevitt, Catherine Legrand and Asha Thomas, while absorbing to watch, are hardly a new generation of dancers. Apart from sharing the centennial with a global audience (those who missed it can watch the live stream from all three cities online until July 19) Night of 100 Solos is also advance publicity as well as a preview for a raft of Cunningham performances later this year that the Merce Cunningham Trust has generously offered to companies and festivals free of licensing fees. In the UK these include Dance Umbrella, Rambert and the Royal Ballet; London, at least, will be spoiled for choice.  

The PR nature of Night of 100 Solos clarifies the choice of performers; we can expect to see them again later this year in a Cunningham work on one of three continents — hopefully with a contingent of company alumni too. It will be interesting to see how the Royal Ballet will deal with Cunningham’s work. While his choreography borrows from many sources that include the classical ballet canon his technique can prove challenging to classically trained dancers. In teaching the body to ‘move in any direction at any speed, without hesitation, without stammering’ (to quote Denby again), his technique is more akin to the requirements of Astaire than to those of Petipa. Watching Francesca Hayward, Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Joseph Sissens in their solos is to see a concentration on form struggling with the dynamics of freedom; Cunningham makes the body dance to its own rhythm and allows us to watch whereas classical ballet both relies on a musical score for its expression and demands our attention. Toke Broni Strandby in his solo with the chair and Jonathan Goddard in his soft shoe shuffle demonstrate how deliciously translatable Cunningham can be.

The influence on Cunningham of his creative and life partner John Cage, who died in 1992, was abundantly present in the sophisticated playfulness of the five musicians in the pit: Mira Benjamin (violin), John Lely (objects and electronics), Anton Lukoszevies (cello), Christian Marclay (turntables and objects) and coordinator Christian Wolff (piano, melodica, objects). To paraphrase Cunningham, what you’re hearing is what it is.


Rambert Dance Company: Mixed Bill — a question of perspective

Posted: June 2nd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Rambert Dance Company: Mixed Bill — a question of perspective

Rambert Dance Company at Sadler’s Wells, Mixed Bill, May 17.

There are two perspectives from which to view Rambert’s recent program at Sadler’s Wells: the historical and the spatial. The range of styles of the four works spans 100 years, from Vaslav Nijinsky’s L’après-midi d’un faune of 1912 (in its 1967 staging by Ann Whitley) to artistic director Mark Baldwin’s response to it, What Wild Ecstasy. Itzik Galili’s SUB, created on his own company in 2009, and Siobhan Davies’ 1995 gem, The Art of Touch, are more recent but almost diametrically opposed in approach. Is it possible for a company to do justice to four such diverse works in a single evening? The answer to this could well depend on the spatial perspective, which is the view the spectator has of the stage. No choreographer creates a work with dancers in a studio two floors below across the road, so viewing a work from the perspective of the Second Circle at Sadler’s Wells is to see it in a way that was never intended. Seated in the stalls, you only have to be concerned by the historical perspective; sitting in the Second Circle, it could be the historical or the spatial, or a mixture of the two.

One thing that can be seen from above is pattern. Fortunately there is plenty of that in Itzik Galili’s SUB and the lighting by Yaron Abulafia is particularly sculptural. SUB starts with an explosion of thunder in the dark. A lone figure dances in a circle of light, naked but for what seems to be a long tutu that adds to the all-male cast’s androgynous look as the lighting blasts the dancers’ skin. (I gather later from a critic who sat in the stalls, that the costume is in fact an army greatcoat worn as a kilt). Adding the relentless pulse of Michael Gordon’s string quartet, Weather One, to the white light and military imagery, the scene is set for a work that is in turn hard-edged, nervy and menacing. These qualities are laid down on each layer of music, choreography and lighting. Indeed, the time coding of the lighting is so intimately linked to a commercial recording of the score that the quartet cannot be played live, giving a sense that SUB has been choreographed in light as much as in movement. Abulafia has created shadows on the stage in which a line of dancers will lurk while a duet or trio takes place in the light and the dancers never seem to exit; they glide instead into dark light, giving the work a feeling of constant intense activity. He also forms lines of light in front of the wings, like a lintel (this you wouldn’t see from the stalls, because the lighting designer has the added advantage of working like an architect with a plan). The choreographic structure is closely based on the rhythmic episodes in the music. There are constant juxtapositions of chaos and order, storm and calm, with complex spacing and interweaving that will suddenly transform into a line. The seven men dance for all they are worth, taking risks with their own force and in last-minute catches. The frenetic movement slows into a duet or trio accentuating the lines of the dancers slowly stretching into their shapes while others watch in their line of light at the side of the stage. The quiet is shattered by another explosion of energy, a frenetic movement that resolves in a line of dancers across the front of the stage watching a solo that has the feel of an interrogation under blinding light. Now we see the posse of men break out into seven wild solos that build in intensity until it re-forms with all seven jumping in unison to the rhythm of the music, reducing the evocative strings to a pounding, ominous pulse. Six men line up on the front of the stage, now facing the audience like a line of security guards, while the movements of a single dancer behind them fade in the dying of the light and the music.

Siobhan Davies’ The Art of Touch is a work that should definitely be seen close up. Her inspiration was ‘how a musician’s hand touches the keyboard and how the plectrum makes contact with the strings.’ How intimate and intricate is that? There are so many subtleties of gesture that get lost in seeing it from an upper balcony seat. Later, when I see the film of the original cast on the Siobhan Davies digital archive (see links), it is a revelation.

Harpsichord is not the easiest of instruments to listen to (Sir Thomas Beecham once likened its sound to two skeletons copulating on a tin roof), but there is a sumptuous quality to the playing by Carole Cerasi of five keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti and the specially commissioned Sette Canzoni of Matteo Fargion. Mathematics apart, the work is set in seven movements for seven dancers. Seeing the work close up on screen, the choreography is so rich and ripe it just bursts on to the stage from the first moment. Thrilling. It is difficult to know if the Rambert dancers are underplaying the subtleties of gesture, or if my own spatial perspective is the reason why what I see on stage is not what I see later on the screen. Not all is lost, however: in the second sonata duet you can feel the gentleness of his touch on her stomach, and in the solo in the third sonata (originally danced by the late Gill Clarke) there are beautiful arm movements, swaying behind the back and the head thrown back in abandon. When the buoyant Scarlatti ends and the reflective, introspective Fargion begins, there is a clear break, psychologically and choreographically. It doesn’t last long. In the following section there is a relentless volley of notes to which a line of dancers one behind the other bourré like a caterpillar on speed. There are spirited games, an element of madness and chaos, patterns flowing from one group to another, solos and duets, and a line wheeling around to a final diagonal, in which the movement seems caught in suspended animation.

The stage is beautifully set by David Buckland, reminiscent of a Paul Klee painting, the colour of reddish cork, and as soft. Now that I have seen the original cast, I notice the costumes have changed since those first performances; a turquoise waistcoat stands out as a vestige of Scarlatti himself. Even if the experience of seeing The Art of Touch from the Second Circle is frustratingly incomplete, it has led to an appreciation of the work through other means. This is the advantage of a digital archive.

When L’après midi d’un faune was first performed at Covent Garden, Diaghilev had made Les Ballets Russes the centre of artistic endeavour: he was determined to make the ballet a catalyst for all that was modern and exciting in the arts. Nijinsky was in his prime as a dancer and Faune was his first choreographic exploration. Crucially, he choreographed the faun on himself, with a cast of seven maidens to frame his erotic episode. Nijinsky’s reputation is always going to be an enigma to audiences today, but one person who saw him dance the faun, Cyril Beaumont, wrote in his memoirs: “Nijinksy’s Faun was a curious conception, a strange being, half human, half animal. There was little of the sprightliness, lasciviousness, and gaiety which legend has ascribed to such beings. There was something cat-like about his propensity for indolence and the elasticity of his slow, deliberate, remorseless movements. His features were set and expressionless, and did not change throughout the ballet. By this means he suggested the brute, the creature actuated by instinct rather than by intelligence. Perhaps the most unusual characteristic of Nijinsky’s portrait was this lack of emotion, all feeling being subjected to the exigencies of pure form.” If I hadn’t seen this quality for the first time in a dancer just last week, I would not have known what Beaumont meant. Dane Hurst has beautiful line and poise, but he has not that brutish quality. Faune is only superficially about turned-in lines and shapes; at its heart is the animal nature in pure form, something primeval. There is no notation that can capture that.

Mark Baldwin’s What Wild Ecstasy is his celebration of the centenary of L’après midi d’un faune and at the same time his response to it in terms of its outdoor nature, its ‘primal instincts and urges, fascinations and attractions.’ The score by Gavin Higgins suggests ‘Acid House music with its hedonistic home in the underground rave scene’ and the design by Michael Howells, dominated by a giant insect hanging above the stage, enhances both approaches: we see a wildly ecstatic dance in wildly colourful costumes from beginning to end. In the program notes, Baldwin writes about his fascination for the ritualized dance gatherings in his native Fiji and their ability to help ‘bond a community, bolster its individuals and act as a way of releasing tension.’ This is perhaps more true for the participants than for the onlooker, especially one seated so far away from the action.