Merce Cunningham Centennial: Night of 100 Solos

Posted: April 21st, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Merce Cunningham Centennial: Night of 100 Solos

The Merce Cunningham Centennial, Night of 100 Solos, Barbican, April 16

Merce Cunningham
Merce Cunningham (photo by Annie Leibovitz)

To celebrate the centenary of Merce Cunningham’s birth on April 16, the Merce Cunningham Trust live-streamed three shows in three cities (Los Angeles, New York and London) that each presented 25 dancers performing 100 solos from the Cunningham repertoire. In London’s Barbican, where the Merce Cunningham company had performed regularly for the last 20 years of its life, Daniel Squire (with help from Ashley Chen and Cheryl Therrien) arranged extracts from 54 works, the earliest being Dime a Dance (1953) and the latest Nearly Ninety (2009), to fit within a 90-minute format. The idea of presenting solos as a collage without the context of their parent works follows one that Cunningham had devised whenever the company performed in a non-theatrical venue like an art gallery or a gymnasium. Despite the paradox of creating this event in a proscenium theatre it nonetheless offers an opportunity to savour the extraordinary richness of Cunningham’s choreographic thinking over a fifty-year period. As dance critic Edwin Denby wrote in 1968, ‘Seeing Merce is always a very great pleasure.’

Denby had attended Cunningham’s very first program of solo dances in New York in April 1944, describing their effect as ‘one of an excessively elegant sensuality’ that contrasted with ‘one of remoteness and isolation’. These two qualities, both alone and in combination, could well define the range of solos chosen for the Barbican along with an all-embracing sense of playfulness and wit that point to one of the basic tenets of Cunningham’s work. In his last recorded interview with Nancy Dalva Cunningham responds with the nonchalance of accumulated wisdom to a question about what dance means to him: ‘We look out at life and that’s dance.’ 

The Cunningham company was famously disbanded as part of its founder’s legacy plan following his death in 2009, so although there are seasoned performers like Squire and Julie Cunningham on hand, this centennial celebration is staged with dancers who have never been part of Cunningham’s company even if some of them have studied his technique. The Merce Cunningham Trust explains that ‘in each city, a former dancer experienced in creating Cunningham Events will work with an associate stager and other Merce Cunningham Dance Company alumni to impart the choreography to a new generation of dancers.’ There is more public relations than clarity in this statement as such luminaries as Siobhan Davies, Michael Nunn, William Trevitt, Catherine Legrand and Asha Thomas, while absorbing to watch, are hardly a new generation of dancers. Apart from sharing the centennial with a global audience (those who missed it can watch the live stream from all three cities online until July 19) Night of 100 Solos is also advance publicity as well as a preview for a raft of Cunningham performances later this year that the Merce Cunningham Trust has generously offered to companies and festivals free of licensing fees. In the UK these include Dance Umbrella, Rambert and the Royal Ballet; London, at least, will be spoiled for choice.  

The PR nature of Night of 100 Solos clarifies the choice of performers; we can expect to see them again later this year in a Cunningham work on one of three continents — hopefully with a contingent of company alumni too. It will be interesting to see how the Royal Ballet will deal with Cunningham’s work. While his choreography borrows from many sources that include the classical ballet canon his technique can prove challenging to classically trained dancers. In teaching the body to ‘move in any direction at any speed, without hesitation, without stammering’ (to quote Denby again), his technique is more akin to the requirements of Astaire than to those of Petipa. Watching Francesca Hayward, Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Joseph Sissens in their solos is to see a concentration on form struggling with the dynamics of freedom; Cunningham makes the body dance to its own rhythm and allows us to watch whereas classical ballet both relies on a musical score for its expression and demands our attention. Toke Broni Strandby in his solo with the chair and Jonathan Goddard in his soft shoe shuffle demonstrate how deliciously translatable Cunningham can be.

The influence on Cunningham of his creative and life partner John Cage, who died in 1992, was abundantly present in the sophisticated playfulness of the five musicians in the pit: Mira Benjamin (violin), John Lely (objects and electronics), Anton Lukoszevies (cello), Christian Marclay (turntables and objects) and coordinator Christian Wolff (piano, melodica, objects). To paraphrase Cunningham, what you’re hearing is what it is.


Jonathan Burrows & Matteo Fargion: One Flute Note

Posted: October 8th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jonathan Burrows & Matteo Fargion: One Flute Note

Jonathan Burrows & Matteo Fargion, One Flute Note, Studio Theatre, UAL: Central Saint Martins, October 5

‘There is nothing to say, and I am saying it.’ This is the opening statement of John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing and in Jonathan Burrows’ and Matteo Fargion’s One Flute Note presented by Dance Umbrella last night at the suitably pared-down Studio Theatre in Central Saint Martin’s there is an echo: there is nothing to do, and I am doing it.

I recently was introduced to John Cage’s ideas after hearing Richard Bernas’s radio program, Beyond Silence, celebrating the centenary of Cage’s birth. I hadn’t realised the vigour and humanity of Cage’s discourse on music, sound and life. I feel Burrows is a similar voice in dance, and in Fargion he has found a co-creator to give form to their ideas. As Burrows writes in his book, A Choreographer’s Handbook, ‘Collaboration is about choosing the right people to work with, and then trusting them. You don’t, however, have to agree about everything. Collaboration is sometimes about finding the right way to disagree.’ Anyone who knows the book will recognise the balanced form of his axiomatic advice, and Burrows’ fruitful collaboration with Fargion since they met in 1989 is proof of the validity of this particular axiom. They have been creating duets together since 2002: Both Sitting Duet (2002), The Quiet Dance (2005), Speaking Dance (2006), Cheap Lecture (2009), The Cow Piece (2009) and Counting to One Hundred (2011). Dance Umbrella is presenting a mini-retrospective of five of them.

This is the first performance of One Flute Note, and evidently there are some (permitted) errors that one can sense only from the occasional lapses into self-conscious smiles. Burrows and Fargion are so comfortable with each other on stage; seeing them in the bar afterwards, it is as if drinking a cold beer is as natural as the performance on stage: no makeup to remove, no costumes to change out of, no barrier between performer and audience. This naturalness is encapsulated in one of the maxims for ‘beginnings’ in the Handbook: ‘we walk on as though we were walking into Matteo’s kitchen.’ Another is that ‘we walk on in a formal way that is unexpectedly informal.’ The simplicity of these two statements belies the complexity of what we have been watching for the past thirty minutes. Burrows and Fargion play predictability against unpredictability, the expected against the unexpected, action against stillness, silence against non-silence, narrative against abstract, and absurdity against a sense of normal. In the intersection between these opposing ideas they find the space for both tension and its release in laughter.

The program notes underline the importance to Burrows and Fargion of the structure of Lecture on Nothing, proposing that One Flute Note is ‘at once a homage to and questioning of a way of thinking that has underpinned so much dance and performance in the last 30 years.’ Presumably this is the continuing decoupling of dance from the classical form and the corresponding embrace of everyday movement in dance vocabulary. It is also the liberation of thinking about dance that allows endless permutations. There is certainly a sense of freedom in One Flute Note, somewhere between a Peter Cook sketch and a rigorously intellectual approach to dance performance. It involves amongst other elements a surreal array of sound inputs that vary from the one flute note to the sound of 45 choirs, two versions of a chair dance (one without and one with the chairs), and a constant disequilibrium that is kept in play within an absurdly rational structure.

That structure is a paradox of Cage’s lecture: his ‘way of thinking’ liberates, while the form in which it is delivered is carefully constructed. ‘This is a composed talk for I am making it just as I make a piece of music. It is like a glass of milk. We need the glass and we need the milk.’ It is the first time I am seeing a duet by Burrows and Fargion, and I find it liberating. At the same time it is clear that One Flute Note is highly organised and heavily cued; the sound engineer is in effect a third performer. There is no room for improvisation or chance occurrences, nor is there any notion of dissociating the movement from the score, which is one of the central ideas of Cage’s partnership with Merce Cunningham. Burrows and Fargion are forging their own path of questioning and coming up with their own ‘handmade and human-scale’ answers. One Flute Note owes something to John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing, something to Lee Scratch Perry’s Bucky Skank (it’s in the Handbook if you want to know why) and a lot to the intellectual rigour and integrity that Burrows and Fargion bring to their work.

At the end of his radio program, Richard Bernas says that after a performance by Cage his mind and ears are ‘refreshed, more at ease, more balanced, more alert to the world than when it started.’ I feel the same after watching One Flute Note. It is as if Burrows and Fargion have fashioned a way of performing that is a metaphor for living with more freedom within the conflicted confines of our daily lives.