Merce Cunningham Dance Company

September 10, 2002

Merce Cunningham Dance Company

Barbican Centre
London, England
September 10?14, 2002

Reviewed by Donald Hutera

Merce Cunningham?s dances can induce love at first sight. Take Interscape (2000), the long, glowing ensemble work, which received its London premiere as part of a co-presentation of the Cunningham company by the Dance Umbrella festival and the Barbican Centre?s BITE program of international performance. Challenging yet user-friendly, this dance is eminently good company. The movement was like an unfolding series of timeless tests and benedictions derived from a lovely, peculiar game. We don?t need to know the rules; it?s enough for us as observers to revel in the way it?s played. The anchoring central duet, danced by Lisa Boudreau and Cédric Andrieux in a manner charged with romantic trust, was classic Cunningham. The entire piece was staged before a Robert Rauschenberg backdrop that suggested a collage of civilization. The accompaniment throughout was John Cage?s spare, questioning score for solo cello, played live by Audrey Riley. The music left room for thought, which was just as well, given the amount of choreographic information imparted during an approximate forty-five-minute running time.

was preceded by the world premiere of Fluid Canvas, a starkly contrasting co-commission from BITE and the University of California at Berkeley?s Cal Performances. The music, John King?s longtermparking, pitched rattling cans and pinball-machine noise amidst piano plinking. The digital decor was by Marc Downie, Shelley Eshkar, and Paul Kaiser. The latter pair were responsible for the ghostly grandeur of the designs for Cunningham?s BIPED. Here the impermanent, colored constellations, lines, and smudges they and Downie concocted were largely derived, via computer, from Cunningham?s own hands. The results were more distracting than integral or interesting, particularly when those hands are projected, far too literally, as a backdrop.

In Fluid Canvas the dancers wore iridescent unitards of metallic blue and purple. Low-key lighting lent the dance a certain nocturnal shimmer, but the overall effect was gray, remote, and automatic. The piece was dense with shifting rhythms. Structurally it moved between unison duets, several sets of trios and a quintet of totemic stillness. An angular, postmodern rock ?n? roll pairing, set to battering percussion, had spark. It ended with the woman stepping into the man?s hands as if climbing over a gate, after which each ran off in opposing directions. Derry Swan?s excellently danced solo occurred beneath a digital lunar eclipse. Other dancers later juxtaposed urinating-canine balances with gravity-defying upward leaps into flight. There was, naturally, considerable complexity in the way Cunningham worked the dancers? legs and feet. The climax consisted of three chorus-line rows executing lickety-split hops, forward and back again. The end arrived abruptly, as if someone suddenly hit the “off” switch.

On the basis of a single viewing, Fluid Canvas came across as one of Cunningham?s more unprepossessing, impenetrable dances. Not negligible, certainly; more like temperamentally unyielding. Of course, even lesser Cunningham is preferable to almost anyone else?s best efforts. And who?s to say how this dance will evolve or deepen the more it?s performed, the more the dancers live in it, the more it?s seen?

The company?s second program shifted gears from Way Station (2001), less antic than its surreal set of space-creature sculptures by Charles Long would have us believe, to the beautifully constructed Loose Time, premiered in early 2002, and the revival of the still-fresh How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run (1965). Plenty there to keep London audiences stimulated and laughing.