07 November 2010

Merce in Paris/The Farewell Tour

Merce November 6, 2010

The two-week season of Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris marks a fond tribute to the memory of Merce and to the splendid discipline of his dancers on the company’s last tour before disbanding. It culminates decades of the French audiences’ passionate embrace of his work. I could feel this mutual bond in the warm applause and rapt attentiveness throughout the performance. The first week’s triple bill was offered as a retrospective of sorts, bridging the zany, irreverent Antic Meet (1958) with the more recent, dare I say impressionistic Pond Way (1998). The two works framed the most substantial work of the evening, Second Hand (1970).

At first, everything is surface in Pond Way: the skimming, skittering entrances, the way the stage gradually fills with unison dancing and defines the flatness: a planing of the open space set against its Pop pointillist backdrop by Roy Lichtenstein, a boat from some old Japanese woodcut peaking out of the lower stage right frame.  The dancers’ outstretched arms scissor like insect wings, or the multiple blades of Swiss Army knives. Their upper torsos rotate as if made to swivel 360°.  I am reminded of Doris Humphrey’s “Water Study”, or the way José Limón would orchestrate our bodies in variations of arcs and motor rhythms so that the head, arms, torso and legs were all differently scored parts or instruments of a one-person symphony. There are striking pauses, in unison and independently, usually high on relevé, with their timing determined by some other non-human realm of logic or sense. I can almost see the dancers’ tapered forms reflected on the pond’s surface, particularly when they balance on one leg, hovering and weightless, extending the free limb over a still mirror to admire its facets. Thoreau meets Les Patineurs. David Covey’s lighting casts the dancers in surreal amber; as if low sunlight caught them in its beams for a moment in the morning, and we are provided a privileged glimpse of the magic.

Watching a man’s entrance from downstage right, I am struck by an objectification of sequence and step, a deliberate intention or focus unto itself, not character-driven but rather registering a quality of attentiveness. Other dancers one at a time assert themselves with soloistic flourishes, bringing the piece into higher resolution like a zooming in of camera to reveal the virtuosity and freedom of these hypermobile creatures. The culminating image is of a women crossing along the front of the stage, audience right to left, like a slow-moving boat with white sails, while men cycle back into the space and return one at a time to support her, worship her, fall at her feet, and guide her or mark her progress across the pond’s surface.

I’ve seen this work before, but for the first time, I’m aware of the subtle shift that occurs when the dancers re-set their legs from parallel placement (the way normal people walk, an archaic, folk-like stance, more grounded, a stride) to ouvert or “turned-out” (suddenly more mobile, allowing for leaps, jumps, fleeting footwork and easy plié/releve through foot, ankle and Achilles, the elegant, diamond-shaped opening between knees, revealing inner calf, thigh, beautifully turned heel and exquisitely pointed foot: very balletic, French/Louis XIV).

This shift is even more pronounced in Second Hand, the second of three works on the program and jewel in the crown of this celebratory evening. What can I say? The work leaves me speechless, in another zone. I had seen its premiere at Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1970 and remember the controversy around the rights to the arrangement by John Cage of Erik Satie’s Socrate that were denied the company at the last minute. Cage’s new solo piano score, Cheap Imitation, quickly replaced it; this would be Cunningham’s last attempt to choreograph to a musical score.

The work begins and ends with the solo male figure, clad in glowing yellow unitard with open collar insert, standing in a pool of light, first downstage center and then upstage. As the curtain rises, Robert Swinston, the company’s senior member, custodian of the repertory and acting artistic director, is revealed in the light: the original man, Adam, artificer, dreamer, pilgrim, Everyman, Socrates… Merce. He stands in parallel; his finely tuned body is directed by a deep, inner urgency as if it/he is trying to direct the course of a boat or the rotation of the globe by subtle shifts of weight, a step forward, a reach, a balance on one leg, a skating sideways. He navigates a lifetime of work and consciousness in ten minutes or so, while standing in place. This is as close as Merce gets to a literal metaphor of the “I”, of man/woman in relationship to the universe. It reveals all, and strikes me at a deeply personal, emotional level.  I am allowed to identify with this man.

The void lifts from his shoulders as Andrea Weber enters with playful, balletic butterfly steps and long, silky extensions, gently preening as any muse would do for her enamored creator.  Swinston only rarely approaches or touches her, keeping his admiring distance; a slight lift, a circling, a mutual orbiting and intuitive exchange, and then she is gone. (Is this Merce’s worshipful tribute to Carolyn Brown, his muse and the originator of the female solo?) I admire Swinston’s choice not to imitate Cunningham’s more idiosyncratic kinesthetic presence, with its twitches and minute isolations, his reptilian spine sensing every slightest vibration in the atmosphere.

The other eight dancers enter in saturated colors: living, animated paints of the artist’s palette. As the cast benignly, gently navigates the space like a chosen cult from some utopian, apollonian civilization, their groupings embody a primer of dance composition that overlays Zen stone garden with Elysian Fields. It is hard to tell whether Swinston is watching them or actually generating them from his mind: a Prospero, a mere witness, or a man reliving his life’s work? He places himself at different angles or vantage points, sometimes lost in his own orb then turning out towards them again, a single salute returned by another man from far across the space. For a rare moment, the men and women separate into distinct groups of movement, then reunite in duet and trios along a diagonal, as Swinston winds an S-shaped path through them. He ends upstage center, folds to the ground, rises, and stands straddling the stage legs wide, ouvert. The dancers slowly walk offstage in different directions, leaving Swinston alone, his arms rising upwards then opening into a crescent as he lifts his gaze into the space above. Unforgettable. Sublime.

And for something completely different, we have Antic Meet. (I thought what a relief it must be for the dancers to have something to really “play” in the vaudeville sense of the word.) Because of the seriousness and extreme earnestness of much of mid-20th century modern dance, its pioneering choreographers often had an ambivalent relationship to comedy or humor. But from time to time, they surprised their audiences and displayed their wit generously: from Charles Weidman (his silent movie-based romps or parodies) to Martha Graham (Satyric Festival Song, Every Soul is a Circus) to Paul Taylor’s wicked satires (Big Bertha, From Sea to Shining Sea, Three Epitaphs, and countless others).

Antic Meet proceeds like a vaudeville revue, with a succession of skits or scenes that the dancers perform, very aware that this is their duty. The Cunningham dancers remain true to the material and never vamp or ham it up. It is very contained and controlled, as if sealed in a Duchamp or Joseph Cornell box. Entering in black unitards like inked cartoon characters, they immediately create a grid of urban pedestrian paths, while indicating in a gestural shorthand of exclamation marks a series of isolated scenarios. A bouquet of red flowers suddenly appears out of Daniel Madoff’s sleeve; he offers it to a lady, and he is at once the rejected suitor. Or he enters wearing a chair strapped to his back and does a pas de deux with a woman who appears from behind a white door rolled onto stage. Another women performs a bizarre soft shoe on tiptoe in a cone of light that is cast downwards from under the umbrella she holds. And then we have the famous grand spoof on Martha: a man tangled in a striped sweater with multiple sleeves performs an agonized solo among a chorus from out of Graham’s Night Journey (I know; I danced the work it many times.) Their urgent, manic-compulsive circlings, cupped hands and archaic Greek poses say more about Merce’s reasons for leaving Graham’s company to launch out on his own than anything else could. Madoff performs a wiry, Buddy Ebsen-like solo in white overalls, and the curtain closes on an ensemble of obsessively driven dancers in black unitards rehearsing the next 1940’s modern dance.

The audience drank deeply, mindful and in reverence of the long trajectory of Cunningham’s history in France and of his place in the world of contemporary dance.  Like the revered figures in the Buddhist Pantheon at the Musée Guimet, I imagine Merce enshrined among the gods of dance, physics, Zen simultenaiety, and de-centralized space and time. His idea of collaboration and interdisciplinarity, of the music, dance and décor in peaceful co-existence even when juxtaposed by chance methods, and of movement for its own sake, has permeated and permanently altered the dance universe. As a teenager in the 60’s, I was smitten by his radical approach. Forty-odd years later, I admire the finely crafted elegance of his cross-sections of highly civilized anarchy. And I will think differently about the pivotal experience of moving from parallel stride or stance to openness: a “fact” of classical ballet, for certain, but rediscovered by Merce for navigation in the New World.