Merce Cunningham Dance Company.
Reality, in Merce Cunningham's conception, is a succession of unique, unrepeatable events. This gull wheeling, that cat leaping, those people walking in just that way, now. But the repetition of performance (the "same dance" again and again) dulls this truth. To reawaken it, Cunningham stages the programs he calls Events, collages of new and existing material assembled differently for each occasion. Events, in other words, are events: unrepeatable, unique.
Cunningham also sometimes presents whole seasons of Events, introducing one assemblage the first night and gradually altering it for each performance so that by the end of the run it has become a wholly new thing. He has likened this process to the growth of a plant, and this season I began to see what he means. Motifs present only sparingly one night blossom into major structures the next, revealing the forms that lay folded within them. Other images, achingly beautiful or tender or strong, gradually wither and fall away. Even passages that enjoy a long life, several nights, change aspect according to what springs up around them, or simply because we perceive them as growing old.
Events are Cunningham intensified. The named works from which they mainly draw their material advance their own local themes or hinted stories; the Event scans Cunningham's career to reveal his persistent obsessions. One of these is the act of observation itself. Night after night, dancers would come out to stand or sit at a corner of the stage and simply watch the work going on in the middle. The gesture cuts both ways: it's about us watching, but it's also about them, being watched. Dancers spend their lives being watched, Cunningham reminds us--by teachers and choreographers and audiences, but also by their fellow dancers, a different kind of attention.
Such self-consciousness is another constant of Cunningham's art. The company becomes both a portrait of itself and, as the nearest available reality, a metaphor for experience in general. These implications figure prominently in a work in progress, material from which appeared near the end of each Event. (The company wore practice clothes for this section.) In one passage, half a dozen dancers doodling about along the side of the stage "mark," with a self effacing air and little mumbling steps, the movements of a trio in the middle--a particularly striking sight given the incredible precision and energy with which these performers usually move. In another, a quintet of dancers seem to be prompting each other through a sequence of odd little contortions of neck, shoulders, and arms.
I take these passages in part as a joke about the unusual difficulty of the material that Cunningham has been creating recently. The freedom and grandness of scale that still form the basis of his technique have been partly set aside for an exploration of small, even fussy movement in the upper appendages and of the new degrees of complexity such movement makes possible. A constrained, even clotted quality characterizes much of the material from the new work, and at the same time, an emphasis on the small group as a place of cooperation and support.
A few words about the dancers, though they deserve a few thousand. Frederic Gafner continues to bend time and space with his mighty virtuosity. He'll come whipping out of some superbly controlled movement toward a pose you barely believe he can hit, then at the last instant, after he's hit it solid, shift his legs or flick his torso into yet another improbable position. Recently, Gainer has also begun to reveal great charm and intelligence, a maturity that manifests now as gravity, now as gallantry, now as humor. Compelling in a very different way is Robert Swinston, the company's senior member by some seven years. Swinston seems to be aging from the neck up: his face, as it grows more lined, grows more inscrutable, while his body remains as tight and efficient as ever, its movements as reticent. Together, his presence and quality project an uncanny sense of menace.
Cunningham made extensive use of Thomas Caley's princely build and monumentally powerful legs, giving him, among other things, a long, slow solo of wide stances and a voluptuously feral duet with Jenifer Weaver. The season was Weaver's last with the company after seven years of increasingly astonishing virtuosity, and Cunningham sent her off with a valedictory solo that celebrated her balance, lightness, and stretch. The stage cleared, the sound score fell silent, and suddenly it was just Weaver and her legs: a leg held high to the side brought ever so slowly down to the ankle, then back up past the knee with foot flexed, and finally pointed at the apex of a renewed extension. A chain of further immaculate extensions, and then the vision ended, never to be seen again.
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|Title Annotation:||Joyce Theater, New York, New York|
|Article Type:||Dance Review|
|Date:||May 1, 1996|
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