The Tedious Side of Merce

by Alexis Mastromichalis on February 2, 2011

Merce Cunningham

Each summer, the American Dance Festival hosts one evening of shows called “Past / Forward.” ADF students learn an older dance and, with a former company member, re-create it. The “Forward” section is a world premiere of a newly commissioned work set for ADF students. Last year, after the death of Merce Cunningham, Jean Freebury, who danced with the company from 1992 to 2003, unleashed Cunningham’s Inlets 2 on fourteen dancers. Russian dance artist Tatiana Baganova created Sepia, which was the most cutting edge work I saw all summer on the main stage of ADF.

Inlets 2 was almost as painful to watch as Ralph Lemon’s dance residency last November, when his dancers made me and thirty others hold our hands above our heads for over ten minutes. The difference was that more people walked out of Inlets 2 than Lemon’s class. Of course, Inlets 2 has never been the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s most popular piece, quite unlike the three beloved and durable works (Sounddance, Duets, and BIPED) they’ll present for us at DPAC this weekend. But it does illustrate the more divisively challenging side of Cunningham’s innovative choreography.

Collecting nature sounds from a trip he took to the San Juan Islands, which are off the coast of Washington near the Cornish School which he attended, Cunningham choreographed movement to mimic his data. The live orchestra took conch shells, filled them with water, and amplified the gurgle of the Puget Sound. In the normal vein of Cunningham’s work, the dancers never heard the sound of the music until the night of the show.

The blurps and bleeps were just as repetitive as the trite moves of the dancers. The monochrome unitards of sea-water blues were more interesting than the grand battements that the dancers attempted to hold. Sometimes what appeared to be a blue heron turned into a shrieking egret as one dancer hopped and skipped in circles. As an audience member, I got bored waiting for dancers to finish standing on one leg and chasse to the next sound of the seashell.

Tatiana Baganova (photo: Libby Lynn)

The movement was constrained and predictable for the male dancers. Usually they held bird-like poses and waited for female dancers to run up to them to be lifted. Unlike Inlets 2, Baganova’s piece challenged her male dancers with off-balance phrases that ended with quick turns and leaps. Her male dancers were often lifted by the women and therefore blurred the boundaries on who was weak or strong. Her work connected threads of composition throughout the show—starting with sand pouring down from the water jugs onto the men’s bare backs, only to have the dancers later skate through the sand.

As innovative as most of Cunningham’s work has been over the past thirty years, this one felt stuck in time. As Cunningham and Cage were quoted several times, it was not the outcome but the process that was important. Cunningham’s focus on improvisation and chance means that some moments work and some do not. In this case, it didn’t add up—but that unpredictability is both the magic and the folly of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which gives its final NC performances ever on Feb. 4 and 5.

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