April 16, 2009

Two Views of Merce Cunningham

Merce Cunningham Dance Company • Brooklyn Academy of Music, NYC • April 16–19, 2009


Reviewed by Eva Yaa Asantewaa

At 90, Merce Cunningham remains an artist beloved by many, still delighting in the intellectual pleasures of work. His example has inspired generations of our most notable contemporary dancemakers and performers. And so, his spring season at BAM should have been more than a birthday celebration. It could have offered the vision of an elder still scouting new terrain and tempting us with a possible future.

Unfortunately, the 90-or-so minutes of Nearly Ninety are not essential, transcendent Cunningham, nor is this piece particularly revelatory. Collaborating with rock musicians (John Paul Jones, Sonic Youth) who mostly produce pointless, ear-lacerating noises is so 20th century. Dressing dancers in Romeo Gigli’s unitards that only underscore the movement’s arid, artificial, and confining atmosphere is old-school, and it does these esteemed performers a disservice. It looks not just unflattering but repressive, even punishing.

Nearly Ninety
has its isolated rewards, most often provided by dancers whose inherent beauty can be pinched back only so much. The iconic Holley Farmer and Andrea Weber seem to be in touch with irrepressible inner selves which make their outward dancing selves gleam. Rashaun Mitchell interprets Cunningham’s dictates with a subtle, palpable softness that, while sacrificing nothing of precise form, makes room for the human viewer in a human world of his own imagining. Nearly Ninety needs these points of focus because, without them, it would be a robotic, awkward exercise in physical manipulation and juxtaposition.

The unusual décor by Italian architect Benedetta Tagliabue has won little critical respect, but why single her out for scorn? Her glittery, off-centered structure—which conceals and reveals the musicians—might look like an ungainly, silly mess. But it’s also the skeletal base of an eye-popping, sensual light show provided by Brian MacDevitt and video designer Franc Aleu. Tagliabue’s sci-fi mothership and the images that slide and splash across it are just plain fun to watch. Too bad that Nearly Ninety’s collaborators could find only a few tentative ways to integrate the human body into this exhilarating display—as when a high platform suddenly folds out from the structure, and willowy Julie Cunningham climbs up to dance atop it like a cross between a music-box figurine and ET.

Nearly Ninety
gives us too much of what we no longer need—the astringent, inexpressive movement, the anarchic music. Risking heresy, I’ll suggest that acolytes who revere aging dance masters can perhaps be forgiven for clinging to the storied past. But forgive the artists themselves? Never.



Reviewed by Gus Solomons Jr. 

Nearly Ninety
may not be one of Cunningham’s masterpieces, but it’s still better choreography than you’ll see anywhere else. Its premiere at BAM on April 16—Merce’s actual 90th birthday—drew a glittering audience of culturati, eager for a taste of the master’s work. And Merce fans ate it up.

What’s striking about Cunningham’s dances is their ubiquitous calmness. They move extremely slowly or extremely quickly through time in the simplest and the most convoluted imaginable shapes and patterns, but the purpose is always utter clarity. And the excellent dancers’ apparent serenity helps them survive the rigor of those mercilessly exposed balances, extensions, and jumps.

The piece unfolds on a bare floor, backed by a scrim, behind which rises elaborate scaffolding by architect Benedetta Tagliabue that suggests an alien craft. It houses the sound makers—Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, Takehisa Kosugi, and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, and Steve Shelley. Brian MacDevitt’s lighting casts looming shadows of the hulking set. Franc Aleu’s video montage of slow-motion water droplets and inverted images of the dancers adds visual layering. The saturated environment at once distracts from and enhances the dancing.

Cunningham composes brilliantly, using random methods, conventional devices—unison, canon, and counterpoint—and flawless instinct to arrange computer-generated motifs into ravishing episodes: Daniel Madoff sinking impossibly low on one leg as Julie Cunningham zigzags behind him; Holley Farmer, entwined with Koji Mizuta and Silas Riener, who tilt her at glacial speed as if she were gravity-immune.

After intermission, the structure gets revealed, revolved, and even danced upon by Ms. Cunningham on a cantilevered platform 10 feet up. A series of miraculous solos give several dancers moments to shine.

Action grows faster-paced with coordination-challenging phrases. Every body part has its own motor, making dancers resemble short-circuiting computer avatars. They dart on and offstage with jagged triplets and airy leaps while torsos curve and arms slice. After a dense, finale-like flurry, the dance ends with a relatively subdued quartet. The lights black out, but the dance seems to con­tinue eternally, beyond our view.

Ballet Preljocaj

UCLA Live’s Royce Hall • Los Angeles, CA • May 1–2, 2009

Reviewed by Victoria Looseleaf

Tossing ideological concepts to the wind, Angelin Preljocaj called upon the visual senses when he created Les 4 Saisons in 2005 for his acclaimed France-based troupe, Ballet Preljocaj. And yes, the 90-minute, multi-scene work is set to Vivaldi’s beloved score (“The Four Seasons”), with smatterings from some of the Venetian’s concertos thrown in for good measure.    

Also thrown in, tossed around, and even plopped down from the ceiling are whimsical, outré objects—a potted plant, sponges, black stilettos—designed by French sculptor Fabrice Hyber, who cocreated the beguiling costumes with Preljocaj. In addition, a kinetic, meteorologically bent mobile hangs from the rafters. Bedecked with clouds, weather balloons and the like, it’s part of what Hyber calls “chaosgraphy,” something he said was intended to “disrupt order.”

Such a disruptive flight of fancy is a departure from Preljocaj’s darker side (the French-Albanian’s acclaimed Romeo and Juliet featured the heroine as the daughter of a Ceausescu-style dictator to Romeo’s homeless drifter), and while this phantasmagorical journey may only be as deep as a child’s wading pool, there is much to marvel at in the production.

Especially the movement.

From the opening entrance of a pair of galumphing, plastic-encased Teddies (Davide Di Pretoro and Yang Wang) to the arrival of an enticing Queen of Greenies (Caroline Finn, who begs to be kissed by one of four nimble, neon-green-suited men), and the final march of some adorable Porcupines, Preljocaj unleashes a bag of choreographic wonders.

An intriguing Masque trio had Nagisa Shirai and Claudia de Smet taking turns insinuating their bodies into Julien Thibault’s, as well as positioning their heads into a mask fixed to Thibault’s face. Indeed, confrontations, whether joyful or menacing, were another constant. De Smet and Shirai, in S&M mode, gripped each other’s flesh during a duet; Emilie Lalande and Ayo Jackson dueled in difficult balancing poses; and two groups squared off in a jump-rope romp, as a number of dancers displayed arabesques and balletic leaps while others kept the oversized rope in lofty motion.

Childlike notions ingeniously rendered—and exquisitely danced—are welcome in any season.



Photo: Stephanie Berger, Courtesy BAM