Saturday, November 29, 2008

Merce Cunningham Dance Company-Zellerbach Hall

The incorporation of chance procedures into finished choreography is fascinating. In classical ballet, virtually nothing is left to chance and dancers are typically discouraged from making choreographic decisions or contributions. Coming from that world, it is hard for me to imagine dances composed of both set material and the unplanned. But like most things unfamiliar, it only takes seeing it done well once to realize that it is possible and it can work. Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s performance of eyeSpace (2007) confirmed that chance can be an integral tool in the construction of a piece. I think this was the first time that I could actually identify the unintended elements in the finished work.

eyeSpace (2007) was constructed like the theme and variation form in music. Cunningham had numerous set choreographic motifs (the themes) and then altered them in several different ways (the variations). It was in these variations where his commitment to chance shone through. One of the first alterations was a simple directional shift. Several sections of the piece were performed by trios of dancers who executed the same steps, but at different facings: directly front, towards the back or on a diagonal. This created a visual perspective that would not have been present if all the dancers had been facing one direction. Cunningham also experimented with accent, number and tempo. In the same choreographic sequence, one dancer accented the position of an arm, while another emphasized a leg movement. With number, one might perform three leg lifts before moving on, while the next dancer might only do one prior to his/her next movement. There were also differences in tempo. One performer went through a sequence as slow as they possibly could at the same time as a second moved through the same section at moderate speed while a third, at a brisk allegro. The central idea of the motif was the stabilizing factor while the chance options provided the variations.

Observations, like those above, may not seem like analysis, but in this case they are. Much of what was recognized was likely a result of chance procedures in choreography. Perhaps Cunningham gave his company some set movements and then had them try these movements at different intervals, different speeds, and different directions. The fact that this was visible in the finished work is important. It means that the use of chance procedure can be noticed even outside of the studio. It is not only a process, but also a result.

Although I recognize the effectiveness of Cunningham’s chance procedures in eyeSpace (2007), the piece also provoked a question that I think will affect how I view choreography. Does the origin of movement really matter? Would it have been possible for Cunningham to set this work from beginning to end without the use of chance? What if he reached the same result, but used an entirely different process? Does it really make a difference? This is an enormous question in dance and I don’t know if there is an answer. But, it is interesting to consider.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Merce Cunningham Dance Company-The Craneway Event

Merce Cunningham is a conceptual genius. Concepts are his thing; his talent and intellect in this arena unrivalled. He summons ideas and is able to develop them choreographically, offering a complex consciousness to the audience. The result is ripe with intensity and honesty, having been diligently examined and investigated through his process. In his recent site-specific work, The Craneway Event in Richmond, California, Cunningham took a single idea and instilled it into every aspect of the performance. The focus this time was transitional space, and the depth of his vision was transcendent.

Positions are crucial to dance. From the moment you walk into any dance class, you are bombarded with positions: positions of the arms, positions of the feet, placement of the head, facing of the body. But so often what is missing from your education is the crucial focus on the space between positions. The ‘in between’ provides the true thrill of dance. The final pose is nothing when compared with how the dancer got there.

Cunningham understands this better than any other modern choreographer right now. In The Craneway Event, the dancers were constantly going somewhere; their bodies never stopping. The movement was always alive with continuous transitional energy. One of the best examples of this was Cunningham’s use of rélévé long. The rélévé long is like a slow grand battement, where a straight leg is lifted up directly from the floor, to the front, side or back. When performed with proper attention to the movement’s transitive nature, you can see the foot guiding the whole leg through a slow, careful arc in space, and the energy moving outward beyond the point of the toes. The movement appears elastic and infinite. Cunningham’s choreography was full of these melty, stretchy, sinuous motifs that achieved the unusual condition of clarity in shape combined with clarity in transition.

His fascination with the transitive did not end with the choreography; it was present in every aspect of the piece. The performance space itself was transitional with 3 connected stages spread across the enormous warehouse. This placed the dancers in transition. They would perform in one section of the work and then move on to be a part of another segment in another space. The audience too was transitioning because of these three attached yet spread out stages. They walked around the performance space as the dance proceeded, and hopefully made some discoveries about their viewing habits. I noticed that when I see a piece on a traditional proscenium stage, I tend to focus in on one or two individuals and watch them the entire time. I found that this piece forced me to watch more of the dancers because I was moving and they were moving.

Cunningham’s dancers, artistic collaborators and administrative staff are blessed. They have been given the rare gift to bear witness to the process of an incredible artist. They get to see his initial idea explored and refined through choreography; they are truly watching something grow from its origin into what it will eventually become. I envy them.