Merce Cunningham’s “Suite for Five”

by Chris Vitiello on February 4, 2011

Merce Cunningham (photo: Richard Rutledge)

As 20-foot-high, black-and-white archival stills of Merce Cunningham panned across the backdrop of Reynolds Industries Theater, unlit dancers stretched and warmed up at the feet of the departed master. To the side of the stage, Trevor Carlson, the Company’s executive director; Robert Swinston, the Company’s director of choreography; and David Vaughan, the Company’s archivist, nestled themselves behind a table. They talked and talked. It was a long-winded but enlightening way to prep for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s final NC performances ever this weekend. The residency event provided real insights into how Cunningham developed dances—both in his notes and in the studio—and what challenges choreographers and dancers face in their reconstructions now that Cunningham is gone. The dance Suite for Five was the vehicle of our edification.

The suite developed throughout the 1950s from solo and duet work. We were shown a 1956 Belgian television broadcast of Cunningham dancing At Random, which became the first suite, accompanied by part of John Cage’s prepared piano piece “Music for Piano.” Even within the “postage stamp” television studio, as Vaughan described it, Cunningham stretched within, reached into, and then pushed at the space around him, but in that certain non-intentional way that Cunningham and Cage pioneered. The small, unexpressive, non-narrative exploration deflects consequence and just is.

Daniel Madoff

The company then danced the full suite for the first time since 1971. The open space of the stage felt vast, the emptiness pressing back against the soloist, Daniel Madoff. It seemed a little lonely after the closeness of the Belgian studio, in which Cunningham’s shadow on the claustrophobic drop was as large as he was. After various configurations of dancers, a strong duet—originally danced by Cunningham and Carolyn Brown—emerged. Simple and coolly sensual, it nonetheless conveyed a sincere kindness between the dancers. Madoff knelt with Andrea Weber horizontally balanced on his shoulder. She held herself taut but not tense as he described a circle in place. Then she stood sturdily and Madoff flattened himself on one foot with his arms outstretched to the sides, and the other foot stretching out behind for balance. He shuffled backwards away from her, precisely tapping his hands once on the floor with each shuffle.

After the dancers donned their sweatpants, the panelists talked over the details of the piece. Swinston explained the color-coding of Robert Rauschenberg’s costumes—primary blue and yellow for Madoff/Cunningham and Weber/Brown; secondary colors for the others—and pointed out that Rauschenberg avoided red as he found it “the most aggressive color,” although Swinston added that Rauschenberg would later costume Cunningham in red for Crisis. “As it should be,” Vaughan humorously muttered.

David Vaughan

Pages of Cunningham’s notes for Suite for Five were projected onto the drop. Cunningham incorporated a random tactic into his choreography, holding paper up to a light and circling the imperfections in the sheet. It seemed that the locations of the thin patches in the papers were mapped to the locations of dancers on the stage, or to locations that one dancer with then move through. But Swinston clicked through the pages so quickly that they could not be read, only glimpsed. Perhaps he was mimicking Cunningham, whom he noted would nonchalantly cover pages of notes for in-progress work on his desk when people would enter his office. It was the missed opportunity of the evening—not diving into an explication of a page of notes with these panelists and dancers there onstage to explain them.

During the Q&A session, the dancers talked about how Cunningham taught a piece in the studio. Weber explained the matter-of-factness of his instruction: “He would say, ‘Cross your right leg over your left leg,’ and you just did what he said as he was saying it.” Once the large movements were down, Cunningham would then move closer in and build subsequent cues on top of them. Dancers never saw Cunningham’s notes, but were encouraged to reverse-engineer their own notes for particularly complicated passages with lots of interdependency between the cues. A demonstration of this would have been mind-blowing.

Merce Cunningham (photo: Mark Seliger)

The evening concluded with video of Cunningham and Brown dancing the duet. It was startling to see how differently they made the exact same movements seem. Cunningham’s shuffling floor-tapping was slower, resembling a bird’s mating dance, trying to attract Brown’s attention. It was a reminder—all choreography and innovation and fame aside—of what a remarkable dancer Merce Cunningham was. His movement in his body was transporting and certain; the reconstructions that audiences will see at the two Durham Performing Arts Center shows will have to contend with his superlative example.

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s final NC performances ever begin at DPAC tonight. In addition to recent stories in the Independent Weekly and the Herald-Sun, you can read a new preview article of the event in the Duke Chronicle. And a quick consultation of The Thread‘s search engine will turn up a wide variety of onsite content: We particularly recommend Adam Sobsey’s essay on sex and Sounddance.

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