Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA
June 18, 2010
Merce Cunningham's modern dance tradition will always be a force. The late choreographer's company is on its last tour (ending December 31, 2011), after which the group will disband. Merce Cunningham Dance Company's final bow will be a significant event, marking the end of an enduring modern dance institution. But thankfully, that evening will not be the end of the Cunningham influence. From technique to improvisational processes to chance procedures, students of this rich tradition are contributing to and ensuring the survival of the Cunningham legacy. Liss Fain has a respect for this past coupled with a commitment to moving forward.
The Liss Fain Dance program at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts featured two premieres, How It Ends and Speak of Familiar Things. Both were incredibly strong works that demonstrated Fain's unique choreographic intuition and her desire to take risks. How It Ends was an interesting exploration of synchronicity. The dancer's lower bodies moved in unison while their arms, heads, and upper torsos performed differing elements. Like in much Cunningham work, there was a common denominator; a central theme; a stabilizing force. And, at the same time, several different variations were applied against the basic motif. Sameness and difference - both at once. Also, the traveling triplet made a significant appearance in this dance, sweeping across the stage. This was the first time in a long time that I have been able to visibly pick out this fundamental modern dance step in performance. The triplet is so simple, so beautiful, yet so often absent. Fain's use of this one movement spoke volumes on the contrasting qualities of loftiness and groundedness; said with a continual down, up, up; down, up, up. How It Ends also featured some very complex, challenging and dense partnering sequences. It was creative choreography, though a bit abrupt as the dancers cycled through the various duets. The transitional steps needed a little more attention.
In the artistic notes, Fain reveals that Speak of Familiar Things has a literary connection; to that of Wallace Stevens' poem, “Debris of Life and Mind”. As soon as the curtain went up, I also felt a very strong literary bond, but mine was to "Where the Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sendak. The music, the colors, the backdrop, the costumes and the choreography all pointed me in this direction. From the beginning second to the blackout, animal movements jumped from the stage: the serpentine snaking of the spine and head, the wing-span suggested by arms slightly bent in 2nd position, the use of coordinating rather than oppositional arms and legs and the stag jumps.
Sometimes the biggest risk is also the most meaningful offering. Such is the case with How It Ends and Speak of Familiar Things. Liss Fain's utilization of classical technique with modern sensibility speaks of the past and the future. Her dancers have incredibly strong ballet technique, and Fain is not afraid to highlight this training and let it shine in her choreography. This is a gutsy, risky move, because so many modern choreographers still run as far away from ballet as they possibly can. Classical technique should be celebrated in modern dance; not hidden nor avoided. This is an apparent and necessary lesson of Cunningham choreography and Cunningham technique. Liss Fain was paying attention.