Town, Country, and the Schoolyardby Ryan Wenzel
Compagnie CNDC-Angers/Robert Swinston
Joyce Theater | April 4 – 9, 2017
When the Merce Cunningham Dance Company disbanded in 2011, two years after Cunningham’s death, his choreography’s future was unclear. Who might perform it? Where might it be seen, and how often? Fearing the worst, I consumed as much Cunningham choreography as I could during the company’s final tour.
Fortunately, such stockpiling may not have been entirely necessary: in the last six years, dance organizations from Los Angeles to France have kept Cunningham’s legacy very much alive, bringing a number of Cunningham revivals to New York and allowing newcomers like me to develop an even deeper appreciation of his work. Among the most prominent of these torchbearers is the Centre national de danse contemporaine d’Angers (CNDC-Angers), currently led by Robert Swinston, formerly a dancer with the Cunningham company and Cunningham’s devoted assistant for more than three decades. In April, the center’s resident company, Compagnie CNDC-Angers, returned to the Joyce for the second time with an all-Cunningham triple-bill that was rich in contrasts.
The climate and wildlife of the Pacific Northwest, where Cunningham was born and raised, inspired the program opener, Inlets 2 (1983). Specifically, it brings to mind marshland: three musicians offstage tilt water-filled conch shells next to microphones, while the choreography, mostly languid in pace, conjures birds and fish. Although the formations suggest a community, no two dancers ever touch. The company gave its first-ever performance of Inlets 2 on Tuesday’s opening night, and it was the one piece in which the dancers sometimes looked hesitant; by the Saturday matinée, however, they were right at home.
From this tranquil landscape, the dancers moved to a bleak cityscape with Place, which had its premiere in 1966 and, astonishingly, had not been performed since 1971. Of the roughly twenty Cunningham dances I have seen, Place comes closest to forming a character, at least in the traditional sense. Its central figure (Gianni Joseph) confronts isolation against a derelict backdrop (constructed by Beverly Emmons from wooden crates and newspaper) and surrounded by electronic cacophony (composed by Gordon Mumma).
Joseph surveys the audience with suspicion and flicks his wrists compulsively, establishing the piece’s anxious tone. He stands apart from the other seven dancers as they glide across the stage as a pack. Often, he attempts to join them. Like the other men, he finds a woman to partner, but coupling, in this world, is far from romantic: the women are thrown around like sacks of flour. When Joseph’s partner abandons him, he tries again with another woman, but she, too, leaves him in the end. Then the others depart. Alone again, Joseph crawls inside a plastic bag and writhes on the floor as the curtain falls. Although ambiguous, the dance disturbs, in large part thanks to the focus Joseph brings to the role.
The company’s talents shone most brightly on the whole in the exhilarating How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run (1965). The dance is childlike, but not childish. Eight dancers enter and exit endlessly, and bounce to rhythms unheard. Two women gallop onstage flailing their locked arms, as though fighting over a precious toy. Meanwhile, Gene Caprioglio and Laura Kuhn, seated nearby, read—with brilliant, deadpan delivery—stories from John Cage’s Indeterminacy about a visit from Isamu Noguchi, a traffic stop, Zen philosophy, men, and mountains.
Scores for other Cunningham dances may be louder or more dissonant, but these anecdotes were far more distracting. Once I succeeded in separating the two, however, I found the absurd combination charming. How To, and the two other works, reminded—each in its own way—that although music and movement exist separately in Cunningham’s theater, they often mingle beautifully nonetheless.