17 November 2010

Roaratorio/Merce Cunnigham Dance Company

November 13, 2010: Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Roaratorio

Returning home from the closing night performance of the recent re-staging of Merce Cunningham’s 1983 work, Roaratorio, performed by his company at the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris, I wondered if I should attempt to write a conventional review or pay tribute to the spirit of the work by simulating my experience of witnessing the hour-long program.

My assignment to myself had been to 1) watch it cold, i.e. without previously reading the program notes (in French, (2) jot down (in the darkness) on a small note pad moments that strike me, images from the stage, from the sound score, thoughts, and 3) write a review of the performance, using the nearly indecipherable scrawl as a map or reminder of certain landmarks along the way.

Entering the rear of the theater, I see a white plane looking like a NASA launching pad set at the bottom of the steep incline of the Theatre de la Ville’s auditorium, a geometric Modernist reduction of a Greek amphitheatre. A white cyclorama lifts up behind it, creating an unfolded envelope or pristine canvas. Dancers casually stretch at portable barres for the audience to observe as they, too, prepare for the event about to unfold.  Dancers exit, member of the stage crew remove the barres, lights dim, and the sound score by John Cage begins to invade the theater from various speakers placed around the audience’s periphery.

Dancers carry stools onto stage, clothed in varying components of colorful sweaters, leg warmers or shorts over their monotone unitards.  A pair of dancers step forward to perform a little jig, shifting side to side in their bright T-shirts, their fast fleeting footwork only coincidentally related to sounds of Irish fiddle and folk songs.  Other dancers play an understated game of musical chairs as the multi-track sound score becomes denser. Is that Cage reading Joyce?  Seven women dance in unison with different facings, defining a Cunningham hallmark of clarity in simultaneity. The actual choreography is rather conventional and classroom: a simple set of hopping or leaping variations. Dancers change the placement of stools again, more hopping motifs, children’s voices, yellows, red, green, a pas de trois of women doing arabesques into Graham contractions. Daniel Madoff enters stripped to a charcoal grey unitard, (Does this work eventually become neo-classic Merce?) and performs a rapid gesticulation of steps. Lights pale to blue, costume accessories come on and off (according to some chance operation offstage?) 4 duets, then 5, men and women facing each other, circling doing different steps like cogs of a clock slightly unsynchronized, their shadows cast on floor making geometric diagrams. Stools are placed on the diagonal to sounds of running water, fiddle, singing. Robert Swinston does a brief, pensive solo signaling the wonder of still-mobile limbs. Like a curtain of shadow figures closing onto a landscape, dancers enter from both sides mirroring the same phrase, and fill the stage like a Margaret Craske 1950’s ballet class, repeating arabesque, step extend à la seconde, step turn in seconde, merging into a unison circle hopping phrase: triplet, jeté, chainée, turn.

A diagonal line-up of 2-3 layered bodies, then more ballet, or a celebration of the simple mechanics of ballet: balance, turn, shift of weight. Adagios appear out of nowhere, like layers of sound. Sweat stains on unitards are like maps of effort, and the movement is all about set and re-set of directional shift; in groupings of 3-2-2,  a slow side shifting adagio facing forward, a picture moment as if Merce is reminding us that this is what it is about; the eye, the layers of movement shifting in and out of resolution, the purpose of his theater: to frame time and space and offer glimpses onto such momentary pleasures. And the persistent, noisy sound score: does Cage want us to start making noises ourselves? I become aware of different membranes coming into play here: 1) the membrane between what is always there and what we can perceive or comprehend at any moment. Gunshot against a well-mannered, courtly duet, a stroll, a trio of interlocking directional paths upstage right, The couple behind us start talking. Babies cry. A dog barks. More deranged splicings of ballet petite allegro, a brief, rare moment when dancers actually fall into the rhythms of the sound score; a solo arabesque/contraction.  A standing group upstage left salutes with one arm raised, bows, then repeats like a set of living totems, Are these dancers participating in a simulation or systems demonstration? 2) Edges of the stage also define a membrane, which dancers pierce or create pulse points against with their projection of focus and energy, a kind of visual pointillist acoustics within the stage envelope. How much is flatness? When do the visual acoustics break through to reach me in row U?

It wouldn’t be a Merce show without walkouts of audience members. It lightens the atmosphere. 3) Another membrane: of incomprehension, the limits of tolerance. Another strolling couple, so old-fashioned, so heterosexual, so profoundly disappointing! Is this freedom or subjection? Are these dancers adherents to a philosophical system imposed upon them? Yes. And Yes. Aren’t we all? Maybe that’s why the French love it so much. So Foucaultian. Two businessmen who have been growling behind us get up noisily and leave. A Sylphides-like trio upstage center makes pretty pictures in quaint low arabesques. Five couples enter with a simple lift element leaving 2 men and 3 women. One does a Grahamesque contraction and skitters backwards. Does the visual become as banal and as invisible as the sound collage eventually does? Or is the eye more demanding, particularly when the motion is produced by human bodies on a stage? Does the eye expect more than the ear, particularly when everything is designed for maximum visuality/visibility? Or does the visual wear thin and the sonic fill in the gaps to create an illusion of fullness, density, complexity?

Little movement games accumulate. Are they having fun? A flat-foot jig again, slow walks, a solo entrance that then merges with something else before it has time to fulfill any kind of promise or thematic development in the usual sense.  Is anything a harbinger of anything else, or is everything a harbinger to everything else? Merce breaks through the 4) membrane of such anticipation, and the viewer either passes through with him or remains frustrated, baffled. A pelvic tip-of-the-hat wobble gesture, a humorous code of conduct or greeting among a very social group of dancers.  Into an octet of women more jetés, a rooster crowing, is it dawn yet in Joyce country? At this attenuated, futuristic re-construction/3-D simulation of a past culture’s barn dance? Cage’s voice sings, 3 dancers do triplets; I think: do not interpret, merely overlay and juxtapose. Something reads to me a final flourish or culmination: 6,8,10, then all12 in unison. Robert Swinston moves stools to stage left, dancers move to stools, take final poses, then lift stools and all exit left. Lights up for endless bows.

With Roaratorio, one either merges willingly into The Merce Zone or does not. A young fellow with dreadlocks sitting behind me stopped me from leaving my seat and implored me to explain to him what I saw in the performance, that he was concerned he’d missed the point. I tried to give him my Dance Appreciation 101 chapter points on Merce, his significance in the Modern Dance legacy, his “philosophy” or esthetic stance, his Zen method of affrontation to free the mind of expectation or stories. “Does that make any sense?”, I asked, equally frustrated with my efforts.  Nods of appreciation. His girlfriend says, “But that is all so dated.”

The morning after, and I awake to an afterimage of the work as comparatively insubstantial and stretched thin. I wonder about what happens between the experience in the theater and the retrospective thinking about it... Am I comparing it to everything of Merce's I've ever seen? Every dance I've ever seen? Does distance in time--and memory--clarify or dissipate an effect?

This I know: Paris audiences have a profound appreciation of Merce’s work. Their rhythmic applause was as much for the valiant efforts sustained by the young dancers as it was for the long history left behind, from Merce’s first visits to Paris in the early 60’s to the continuing influence embodied in a slew of contemporary French choreographers and dancers. For me, Roaratorio does not hold up as well as some of the shorter works. Watching it, I do not experience the extraordinarily unexpected ebb and flow, the sudden moments of ecstatic density, the finely honed tension of coincidental overlay and juxtaposition that to me signal the best of Merce and rival the finest moments of a late Mozart symphony. Kudos to Patricia Lent for the enormous effort of re-constructing the piece. The Cunningham Foundation’s Living Legacy Plan is determined to carry on the repertory, if not in the form of a company, then in a school, a repertory group and the dissemination of works to universities and colleges. Roaratorio is a stop long the way of the 60-year trajectory of Merce’s work, almost too simplistic and transparent for my liking, but a testament to his never-diminishing engagement with the matter of movement and its relationship to the time and space it spontaneously produces, exists within and leaves behind.