Cunningham Chances It
Merce Cunningham has been leading dance audiences into uncharted territory for the last fifty years, and the October performances at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) were no different. When Cunningham broke away from Martha Graham and began choreographing his own works, eventually forming a company in the 1950s, he created a more sparse movement vocabulary in which dancers seemed wholly unaware of each other; remote and self-contained. Gone was the narrative that defined most modern dance, and instead, the movement became the central focus. Of course, this was only one of many Cunningham innovations. But perhaps the most revolutionary of his experiments stems from the result of his artistic collaboration with the composer John Cage. The two began to separate music and dance, allowing dance to escape the necessity of music. Just as groundbreaking was Cunningham’s application of chance operations to choreography. A toss of the coin or roll of the dice would determine the movement phrase, direction, or number of dancers. Fast forward through a lifetime and artistic career and Cunningham is still working out of these and other innovations.
So it was fitting that for Cunningham’s 50th Anniversary Season, the harbinger of chance choreography brought the audience down another route— slyly hinted at in the highway route sign, projected onto an upstage screen, which read "50" and "Merce." But rather than applying chance to just the production of the movement, the theme of chance underscored the entire world premiere of the two-part Split Sides. In a pre-performance ritualized roll of the dice, the costumes, music, set decor, and lighting design were determined. Would Radiohead or Sigur Rós accompany Part A or Part B of the dance? Which lighting design and scenery would be chosen? Which costumes? These were questions that proved elusive to audience members, dancers, and even the choreographer himself. In short, only the dice knew. And thus, we embarked on a performance experience together, seeing where chance would lead.
For the performance I saw, Part A was accompanied by Radiohead’s quirky score, filled with technological bleeps and blips and a streaming together of soundbytes. The dancers wore James Hall’s neon-colored costumes over which a black web-like patterning ran. The set decor for Part A was eighteen-year old Robert Heishman’s bright white and muted green backdrop in front of which a single orb hovered. All these disparate parts congealed to create what was a bold Part A of Split Sides. Cunningham’s complicated movement— the jaunty, lightning-quick runs and foot-work, the careful posturing of the torso or the distinctive, attuned bend of an arm or leg— occupied each dancer as they appeared set on their own courses, falling into synch only as if by accident. Part B, set to Sigor Rós’s more lyrical, expansive score, resulted in a wholly different aesthetic. Hall’s black and white costumes, and Catherine Yaas’s serene backdrop of bleeding swaths of pastels, helped to create the more stately mood through which the dancers traversed and patterned.
Also on the program was the New York premiere of Fluid Canvas— another work that displays Cunningham’s innovative approach to dance through his embrace of technology. This moody, other-worldly piece, included motion-capture images of Cunningham’s hand movements. These digital drawings created by Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar moved with a fluidity and dexterity akin to that of the dancers. And, here, watching Cunningham dancers is a little like walking into a shop full of mobiles. Like a series of mobiles, the dancer’s bodies seem to hang from an invisible string from which all movement originates, proffering a different view with each turn of direction. Hall’s sea blue and wine-dark purple costumes added a foreboding feel to the dancing.
Cunningham’s work is challenging in that, as a kinesthetic experience, one may feel drawn to trying to add up, or make sense of, all the performance’s disparate parts. But, as Fluid Canvas and Split Sides illustrate, it is in the disparity of all the performance elements that one can find a kind of beauty. In Split Sides, particularly, Cunningham’s love of the fortuitous and divers is apparent. While watching the performance, we are engaged in one possibility, but there is a thrilling delight in knowing that it might never have been so, that if it were some other night, time, or roll of the dice, another possibility would have been the result. (In fact, mathematically, Split Sides has 32 possible renditions). But even more important to note is Cunningham’s desire and enthusiasm for navigating new territory— a fact proven by his interest in, and willingness to work with, two experimental rock bands. Though Cunningham, at 84, may be in the twilight of his years, he continues to blaze new paths, dice in hand, ever-ready to roll.
VANESSA MANKO was the former Dance Editor for the Brooklyn Rail.