Merce Cunninghams status in the pantheon of American modern dance choreographers has been assured for many years. He and his late partner, John Cage, were in the forefront of the avant garde, championing an aesthetic that espoused an independent way of thinking. It was called aleatoricruled by or resulting from chance. The dance did not rely upon music, and the music was completely separate from the dance to which it was performed. After Cunningham launched his company in 1953, not only were Cage and other daring composers of the day involved, many leading artists provided designs. Their names are a "whos who" of American contemporary art: Johns, Stella, Warhol, Rauschenberg, et al.
Cunningham began his career as a dancer with Martha Graham (he was the first Preacher in Appalachian Spring). Unlike Graham, he eschews emotion, although it occasionally creeps into his work. The duet he created for himself and Carolyn Brown in Rain Forest comes to mind. His way with movement, pristine in its clarity, places great demands on his dancers. They must have strength and technical skill, bordering on the balletic. Gifted dancers have been a mainstay of the company.
The pleasure to be derived from seeing a performance of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company depends upon ones absorption in the movement (or music, if one is inclined to the kind of music the company uses). Visually the effect is usually striking. There are times when all these elements can create a transcendent experienceif the gods of aleatory are in a favorable mood. More often, the effect is academic and dry, despite the invention in the movement.
Cunningham favors tilts:of the head, of the body. Perhaps his fierce independence wants to keep the body off-kilter. Small, detailed steps are contrasted with leaps. He likes to have a dancer hold a difficult pose, such as an arabesque � la seconde, in which the leg is fully extended upward and to the side, often with the torso leaning and the head bent. By watching closely, phrases are discernable and it is possible to see how they are repeated and used in other combinations.
Two works were presented on the opening program of the companys current appearance at Zellerbach Hall. Recently, the company has been an annual visitor in the Cal Performances series, and this year a world premiere opened the program. Entitled Loose Time, the decor and costumes were by Terry Winters. A large design of layers of open mesh was on the backdrop. With its undulations, it suggested a large fish swimming. The dancers were clad in unitards of a black material with silvery accents, so that they might be described as dolphin-like. The music by Christian Wolff was performed live by Wolff and two other musicians. The sounds they produced were amplified through different speakers placed around the auditorium, so that at times the sound came from the back, or the front, or one of the sides. The sound was clear, without distortion, and had remarkable presence.
The second work was Interscape, first presented in 2000, to a composition by John Cage. One of two, or both, Cage pieces can be used, and in this performance a piece for solo cello was employed. The amplified bow scrapings and silences were characteristic of Cages work. The decor and costumes were by Robert Rauschenberg. A design of multiple images in black and white was on a front scrim. As the piece began, dancers could be observed behind the scrim warming up (some executed movements that would be seen later in the dance). The dancers exited and the scrim rose to reveal the same design on the backdrop, this time in color. The women were in white unitards decorated in colors tending towards red and blue. The men were also in unitards that were more saturated with color, primarily greens, aquas and some blue.
Perhaps because it was the first public performance, a few of the dancers (notably the men) seemed less secure with the movement of Loose Time. There were some hieratic poses, fleetingly held, and men partnering women. The partnering generally does not convey any sense of personal relationship between the two dancers, only the moving of a body. This was particularly true in Interscape. Loose Time was the more cogent of the two dances shown.