Kaleidoscope of life
Common sense tells you that the avant- garde artists of yesterday ought to turn into the retrograde artists of today. With Merce Cunningham, however, common sense just doesn't apply.
It is 56 years since he began to choreo- graph, it is 34 years since he and his com- pany first enjoyed international success outside his native United States, and he Will be 80 next year. So you would expect that this famous avant-garde artist should by now seem conventional or quaint; and you would expect that his work would be marked by personal nostalgia and a sense Of his own place in dance history. But guess What? Mirabile dictu, his 1990s choreogra- phy is still as experimental — tentative, even — as his work of previous decades used to be; and, whereas his work between the early 1950s and late 1980s was often studded with fragments of history, his cur- rent work seems never to have the past on ItS mind at all.
Cunningham has written recently of 'four events that have led to large discoveries' in his career. The first is the one for which he Is still most famous: in the late 1940s, he and John Cage began to present dance and music independent of each other but co- existent. The second is the most misunder- stood: in the 1950s, he started to use chance methods (dice; cards; the I-Ching), as a way of finding new movements and structures in choreography. Third, in the 1970s, he started to work with film and video — and thereby gained a new percep- tion on dance, and new possible correla- tions of space and time. But it is the fourth that has helped him to reinvent himself during the 1990s: namely his use of a dance computer.
When first Cunningham presented his dancers in works that ' he had partly planned on a computer, in 1991, it seemed that he had simply found a new tool to help him carry on creating as before, while his own physical powers waned. It seems oth- erwise in 1998. It is easy to see that he has devised umpteen new positions of the arms, many of a surpassing grace. More profoundly, however, he has now led his dancers to show new — and very exacting — co-ordinations of the upper and lower body. More important yet, he has devel- oped whole new aspects of dance phrasing and rhythm.
This is not an invariably agreeable spec- tacle. One of the four recent works Cun- ningham showed in his season at the Barbican this month was Rondo. Some- times here Cunningham turns very simple walks and strides and jogs into charged, pulsating, matters of consequence. But, throughout the long (structurally most complex) first section, the phrases are chopped. Staccato, always an important element of Cunningham style, reaches here a new extreme. Phrasing, in fact, dissolves altogether amid endless stops and starts. In Scenario (1997), the dancers model some of the most bizarre costumes in the often eccentric wardrobe history of the Cunning- ham company: tight, midi-length dresses (for men and women) with huge individual bulges (a bustle here, a hunchback ruff there) designed by Rei Kawakubo of Comore des garcons. Cunningham gives this trop chic entertainment an urban, sophisticated rhythm, and an elegant, out- going body language. But it is a long piece, and its modish inventiveness is spread rather too thin.
I thought you were going to take me to the Ivy restaurant.' In two other recent pieces, however, Cunningham has somehow inflected his computer-shaped dance material with a wonderful lyricism. Windows (1995) seems a macroscopic view of vast and changing skies, Pond Way (1998) a microscopic account of the life of one small and stag- nant pond. Both are idyllic; and no artist today creates idylls to match Cunningham's.
The title of Windows is surely a pun. `Windows' are part of Cunningham's com- puter process, and they are also frames through which we look at the world out- side. In this piece, the proscenium arch feels like a window through which we see skies peopled by (two half-puns?) wind- spirits and winged creatures. Human tableaux build and alter like cloud forma- tions. Dancers stand almost motionless with spread arms as if borne on the breeze. Or they run, while parting their arms before them — like the Zephyrs and Ori- ons painted on old maps. In Pond Way, the dancers appear to inhabit a pond's surface — like frogs; flies; herons; ducks; lilies. These clues come at us in fragments (the dancers don't pretend to be frogs, but those assembles into first position somehow have the suddenness, the spring, the splay- footedness and the rhythm of frogs) and, when the movement doesn't dissolve into metaphor, it still enchants. In one tiny solo, Cheryl Therrien simply stands, in one still position after another. She changes the arcs of her arms, the angle of her head and eyes, the tilt of her torso — and she lights up the whole stage space, as if striking one long chord after another.
The week-long Barbican season included long queues at the box-office, and standing ovations at final curtain-calls. This was the first London season in which Cunningham himself – always one of the most remark- able of all dance performers — gave no performance. Yet this was scarcely remarked on; there was too much else to look at. The company has a riveting array of strong, imaginative, individual young women: Banu Ogan, Deny Swan, Maydelle Fason, Lisa Boudreau, Holley Farmer have all joined since 1993 and are already pow- erful exemplars of the various possibilities of the house style.. Among the men, Thomas Caley is outstanding. His feet seem to swell like balloons every time he points them or rises onto half-toe; and all his dancing radiates an extraordinary mix- ture of rock-solid power and shy animal grace. But other men shine too: Jared Philips, pixie-like and ardently committed, the stalwart Robert Swinston always bring- ing a dark intensity to his every move, David Kulick making his upper body glow heroically, Glen Rumsey with his melan- choly and androgynous elegance.
Each of the two separate triple bills included one of those anthologies of past repertory that Cunningham calls Events. Barbican Event No. 1 — presented against a red Robert Rauschenberg backdrop gleaming with assorted detail (Immerse, 1994) and to an especially whacky collage of sound by Takehisa Kosugi et al. — felt very much like a gala retrospective. It included virtually complete accounts of Suite for Five (1956) and Winterbranch (1964). The former is a still audaciously eclectic essay in classicism, the latter a cool study in drastic modernism; both are poetic masterpieces, marked throughout by startling connections and ironies. Old Cun- ningham dances still look, and feel, unnerv- ingly modern.
And, while Cunningham himself has moved on to different aspects of moderni- ty, these programmes of dances old and new add up into a single large spiritual image: Cunningham dance theatre, which is still like nothing else in the whole world. Or, rather, it is like everything in the whole world: a poetic kaleidoscope of life itself in all its diversity.
Giannandrea Poesio will be back soon. Alastair Macaulay is chief theatre critic of the Financial Times; his biography of Margot Fonteyn was published in May.