A brief video introduction to the late works of Merce Cunningham

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By Ronnie Rocket, Berlin

Inspired by this article in The New York Times, I have compiled a handful of ballet clips featuring some late works by choreographer Merce Cunningham from his “computer” period.

Rondo (1996)

This dance is in two parts. The first part consists of eight dances: two solos (one for a woman, one for a man), a duet, a trio, a quartet, a quintet, a sextet, and a septet. Each dance is based on a different movement quality. Cunningham tossed coins to determine the order of the dances and the casting in the first part (all the dancers knew all the parts), so that each performance was different. Later he sometimes staged new transitions between the dances for each performance. The second part is fixed, performed mostly in unison. One couple performs a duet alone on stage. The music is one of John Cage’s late “number pieces,” FOUR6—i.e. the sixth in a series of pieces for four players. The piece is described as being “for any way of producing sounds (vocalization, singing, playing of an instrument or instruments, electronics, etc.)” Kelly Atallah’s lighting is somber in the first part, with a scrim at the front of the stage and a black backcloth. In the second part the scrim and the backcloth are raised to reveal a white backcloth, and the lighting becomes brighter. In the first part the dancers are in practice clothes (later, Cunningham decided they should wear swimsuits); for the second, Cunningham asked Suzanne Gallo for something more formal, so she dressed them in black and white. Rondo was first performed in June 1996 in Ludwigsburg, Germany. (An earlier, incomplete version was performed at the University of Texas-Austin, in January 1996, under the title Tune In, Spin Out.)

Scenario (1997)

Scenario was the creation of Cunningham and Comme des Garcons designer Rei Kawakubo. Kawakubo’s humorous costumes toy with the idea of physical distortions, such as humps and big rear ends. They are in mostly vertical blue stripes on white, or in pale green and white-checkered patterns. For much of the dance, five or six dancers twist and pose, each in his or her own space, with a rush of additional dancers to the stage toward the end of the performance. The bold electronic musical score is by Takehisa Kosugi.

Pond Way (1998)

One of Cunningham’s nature studies, Pond Way evokes the trickling affect of water, as the dancers move in wave like motions across the stage; timing the movements so that one begins just after another. The movement was inspired by Cunningham’s childhood game of skimming stones over a pond. Suzanne Gallo designed the costumes–loose fitting white tops and pants. The décor was a patterned backcloth, reminiscent of bubbles of water, based on Roy Lichtenstein‘s painting Landscape with Boat. Brian Eno composed the soundscape.

Biped (1999)

Cunningham has written: “The dance gives me the feeling of switching channels on the TV…the action varies from slow formal sections to rapid broken-up sequences where it is difficult to see all the complexity.” Many people have commented on the elegiac nature of the closing moments of the piece. The décor for BIPED is an exploration of the possibilities of the animation technology of motion capture. The digital artists Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar collaborated with Cunningham, who, working with two dancers, choreographed 70 phrases that were transposed into digital images. These animated images, as well as abstract patterns (vertical and horizontal lines, dots, clusters), are projected on to a scrim at the front of the stage, behind which the live dancers may be seen. Cunningham also used computer software, DanceForms, to develop the choreography for the dance, which is in a number of sections: solos, duets, trios, and ensemble dances. The music by Gavin Bryars, also called Biped, is partly recorded and partly played live on acoustic instruments. Suzanne Gallo’s costumes use a metallic fabric that reflects light. At one point in the dance the men, clothed in pajama-like outfits in a transparent fabric, bring on tops in the same fabric for the women. Aaron Copp devised the lighting, dividing the stage floor into squares lit in what looked like a random sequence, as well as the curtained booths at the back of the stage that permit the dancers to appear and disappear.

Split Sides (2003)

The choreography, music and design elements for Split Sides were each created in two parts, or, in the case of the music, by two bands. British rock band Radiohead and Sigur Ros, an experimental group from Iceland, composed the music. Without using vocals or beats, both groups took a random assortment of sounds and fed them through electronic equipment. The décor is by Robert Heishman and Catherine Yass, and costume design is by James Hall. Each performance varies, as chance procedures decide which of the two versions of each element will be paired together.

And here are two earlier works just to put things in perspective:

Second Hand (1970)

In 1944, Cunningham choreographed a solo called Idyllic Song to the first movement of Erik Satie’s Socrate. Twenty-five years later, in 1969, he choreographed the other two movements, adding a duet to the second movement and a group dance to the third. Satie’s publisher refused permission for his two-piano arrangement, but John Cage composed a new piece for one piano, using the structure and phraseology of Satie’s music, and chance operation to change the continuity. His version was titled Cheap Imitation, inspiring Cunningham to name his ballet Second Hand. Second Hand had no décor, and Jasper Johns designed the costumes, each of a single color except for the edge of the arm or leg on one side where another color enters. The second color in each costume was the primary color for another dancer’s costume, and as the dancer’s bowed, they were arranged in order to show the color succession.

Roaratorio (1983)

Roaratorio was choreographed to a large-scale musical score composed by John Cage in 1979 titled Roaratorio, an Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake. The score consists of three simultaneous elements and is a work of staggering complexity. Cage travelled through Ireland recording sounds in places mentioned in Joyce’s novel, which were later assembled on tapes to form a an hour-long piece. Using lines from Joyce’s book, he then wrote mesostics (a poem constructed so that a vertical phrase intersects lines of horizontal text) on “JAMESJOYCE,” which are read aloud during the performance, and scored parts based on Irish traditional music – jugs, reels, airs, and songs – that are played at various times at various intensities throughout the work. Cunningham, who identified with the “feeling of dance” he found in Joyce’s book, created choreography with motifs on jigs and reels, a “hopping” dance, promenades and strolls, and folk dances that suddenly expand into huge communal circles.




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