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Joseph Campana
Invitation to the Dance
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Modern/Contemporary
Jacob's Pillow
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Beckett, MA
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First Merce

by Joseph Campana
July 26, 2009
Jacob's Pillow
358 George Carter Road
Beckett, MA 01223
413 243 0745
Like falling in love, seeing a new world of dance open up before you sends tremors through the body as a new reality must be admitted before it is adored. On the evening of July 26, 2009, Merce Cunningham died at the age of 90, having constructed the most complex and complete of artistic careers. That very day, on one of those glorious afternoons shot through with sun and brief storm that only the Berkshires can afford, I saw his company for the first time at Jacob's Pillow. Hearing the news that next morning was eerie, sure, but mostly it made the previous day's performance somehow even more portentous than the newness of the dance (at least to me) might otherwise have been.

Utterly absorbing, Merce Cunningham's choreography assembles and breaks down whole universes in his dances as the audience watches transfixed by the smallest of gestures, struggling to breathe in an atmosphere that might at first seem too alien to take in. Slowly, the body and its organs of sense cease their struggle. And perhaps this is what is so surprising about the work—how deeply natural it is. Perhaps this is a time for those who knew his work intimately to speak, but at the risk of naivety or stating the obvious, here are some reflections on what we who were there for the last show of Cunningham's life saw. The program was arranged beautifully for a newcomer to Cunningham. In a sense, the works taught us how to watch the work. And it seemed to me that from each piece a different lesson on the making of art might be divined. For Cunningham's dance is a universe unto itself; his viewers must learn the laws of that universe.

First lesson: imagine dancers are atoms that swerve, collide, combine, and shudder apart in the blink of an eye. This seemed to be the method of the large ensemble work CRWDSPCR (1993) set to the music of John King. This was how Lucretius saw the universe in his epic of atomism De Rerum Natura. Lucretius believed that the universe was governed by the laws of atoms and not by the vagaries of superstition. As in the works of Cunningham, knowledge of such laws may provide an understanding we think of as scientific, but this is no cold vision of the universe even as there was little emotion in CRWDSPCR and less partnering (though dancers do interact frequently if strangely). The geometric costumes stressed the almost inhuman nature of occurrences on Cunningham's stage. If each dancer is an atom or a shape, how would they constellate if observed in frenzied motion? If there was a kind of futurity already written into this early 90s composition, it was not alienated from a vision past. Occasionally, these almost randomly moving atoms assembled into trios and cycled like three graces intimating a universe full of concentric motion. CRWDSPCR thus reprised traditional ideas about the shape and form of dance in tune with an ancient idea of a universe filled with the harmony of the spheres. Then, that universe broke back into the pulsating strings and the fractal structures that supersede the remote and gorgeous cosmologies of the past.

Second lesson: the dancers may strive and the choreographer may plot, but it is the viewer who makes the dance. Cunningham's techniques of randomization already displace the unified idea of the artist and the artwork, giving the viewer the weighty task of assisting in the work of composition. The second piece, eyeSpace (2006), made this abundantly clear as the most technologically interactive piece. Audience members were treated to an ambient soundscape mixed that day in the theater and, if they chose, a personalized iPod allowing them to select a personalized soundtrack for the event. As city noises filled the auditorium, interrupting what I think was smooth Brazilian pop on the iPod I shared with my companion, I watched the oblique angles of the blue bodies on the stage in what was, effectively, a smaller chamber piece. This piece, too, seemed about numbers: a group of four bodies at the opening whose limbs obliquely suggested shapes never to be realized. Three dancers swung into rapid movement around one another as another set entered from the opposite side of the stage. There was more contact in this piece, and the thrill of virtuosic movement cutting through the static of everyday chaos. How to concentrate on movement with all of the distraction that surrounds us? This is the challenge of any form of deep concentration, but this challenge is even greater with the wealth of ever more convenient access to myriad forms of information. Is there not, then, something perverse about forcing a viewer to battle through distraction to see the pristine geometry on the stage? Perhaps so, and many prefer to work less when watching dance. There's nothing wrong with wanting the choreographer to take full control of and responsibility for his spectacle. At the same time, Cunningham wants us to work for our dance. There's nothing wrong with that either.

The final lesson: the universe is a theater and the choreographer the architect arranging dancers in space like a man trying to order birds in the air, the futility of which is gorgeous and strange. Nothing could be clearer in the great masterwork of the performance, Sounddance (1975), which was set to the music of longtime former collaborator David Tudor. Cunningham's interest in animals—particularly birds—is legendary. And his intuition, that we are only ever tenuously human (and that this might be a good thing), seems plucked from the ambient static shading into birdsong that filled the auditorium. The stage was a theater with a rich, mustard colored curtain across the back. The curtain was full of folds—too full of folds—and suggestive of some set of fractal patterns that recur with such fundamental frequency we hardly notice until we're forced to. In the center of the curtain a doorway partly obscured by fabric was the orifice through which the dancers were hurled. There was much more contact among the dancers, though one might say that they didn't partner one another so much as they assisted one another complete inhumanly elegant movements. Robert Swinston played the part of the architect that Cunningham himself originated, arranging the bodies on the stage and helping them in their individual forms of flight. This architect emerged first, witnessed the birth of each dancer, arranged their individual orbits, and then watched as each was drawn back through the curtain into the darkness. Standing alone, briefly, before he too was drawn back into the darkness of the backstage, it was as if he were tendering, on behalf of Merce Cunningham, a sly and knowing good-bye.
Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Sounddance

Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Sounddance

Photo © & courtesy of Karli Cadel


Robert Swinston of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company

Robert Swinston of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company

Photo © & courtesy of Karli Cadel

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