Robert Rauschenberg. A retrospective at Tate Modern

10 February 2017, Tate Modern, London

The Robert Rauschenberg retrospective currently showing at London’s Tate Modern until 2 April, is a remarkable exhibition. It brims with the known from Rauschenberg—Monogram, the famous Angora goat with tyre; Bed made from a quilt when Rauschenberg had no money for canvas; the early Black Mountain experiments; the fascinating sound assemblage, Oracle; his silk screen work; in fact memorable items from every decade of his working life.

Monogram 1955-59 Combine: oil, paper, fabric, printed reproductions, metal, wood, rubber shoe-heel, and tennis ball on two conjoined canvases with oil on taxidermied Angora goat with brass plaque and rubber tire on wood platform mounted on four casters 106.7 x 135.2 x 163.8 cm Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Purchase with contribution from Moderna Museets Vänner/The Friends of Moderna Museet © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York
Monogram 1955-59
Combine: oil, paper, fabric, printed reproductions, metal, wood, rubber shoe-heel, and tennis ball on two conjoined canvases with oil on taxidermied Angora goat with brass plaque and rubber tire on wood platform mounted on four casters, 106.7 x 135.2 x 163.8 cm
Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Purchase with contribution from Moderna Museets Vänner/The Friends of Moderna Museet
© Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

But it also has some fascinating lesser known items. They include a collection of personal boxes (Scatole personali) of various shapes and sizes containing an assortment of small items (including dead insects, pebbles, dirt and sticks) made in response to reliquaries Rauschenberg saw in the 1950s while touring Italy with fellow artist Cy Twombly; and a large, square, open-topped tank of bubbling mud, or actually bentonite clay and water, that is linked up with a sound system that records the sound of the bubbles plopping and spluttering.

What the exhibition shows quite clearly is that Rauschenberg was fearless in his approach to what constitutes art. He experimented with everything that came his way.

But I was especially interested in Rauschenberg’s collaborations with choreographers, including Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown and a range of choreographers working with Judson Dance Theater, and also with his own endeavours in the field of performance art. These activities were nicely represented in the exhibition with video material, photographs and, in the case of Rauschenberg’s performance pieces, his workbooks in which he recorded his movement ideas. Of his own pieces, the best documented was Pelican first made in 1963 for Rauschenberg himself, Per Olof Ultvedt and Carolyn Brown.

Photograph of Robert Rauschenberg’s Pelican (1963) as performed in a former CBS television studio, New York, during the First New York Theatre Rally, May 1965 © The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York Photo: Peter Moore © © Barbara Moore / Licensed by VAGA, NY. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York
Photograph of Robert Rauschenberg’s Pelican (1963) as performed in a former CBS television studio, New York, during the First New York Theatre Rally, May 1965. © The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York
Photo: Peter Moore © © Barbara Moore / Licensed by VAGA, NY. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

As video footage in the exhibition shows, Rauschenberg and Ultvedt performed the choreography on roller skates with parachutes attached to their backs and Carolyn Brown executed some balletic moves, including a stunning series of posé turns on pointe. The piece evolved when Rauschenberg was inadvertently described as choreographer rather than stage manager on publicity material for the Pop Art Festival being held in Washington D.C. in 1963. He seized the moment and made Pelican. Others of Rauschenberg’s performance pieces that were well documented in the exhibition included Elgin Tie and Spring Training.

Other dance material on show included some footage from Minutiae, an early work from Cunningham featuring a screen designed by Rauschenberg. While the screen itself was not included in the exhibition, the footage showed several close-up shots of it, including a small revolving mirror and pieces of lace and other fabric, in addition to the largely red paintwork. What was especially interesting was the location of the footage in a room of Rauschenberg’s ‘red’ paintings, made in a period when he moved away from his early experiments with black and white paint. These red paintings, which included Charlene (1954), a stunning work from the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, clearly set the context for the Minutiae screen.

Other dance footage included a section from Cunningham’s Travelogue, designed by Rauschenberg in 1977. Again the location of the footage within the exhibition was significant. It provided further context for Rauschenberg’s Travelogue designs. In 1975 Rauschenberg spent time in Ahmedabad, a city in India renown for its textiles, and his use of textiles in his works from this period were hung in one room of the exhibition, along with the Travelogue footage. In Travelogue, this Indian experience is reflected in the costumes he designed, with their ‘wheels’ made from sections of different fabric; in the sheer cloth that hung from overhead as the dance progressed; and in the long strip of sheer, white fabric that the dancers carried at various stages.

On the other hand, the painting Charlene from 1954 has, in one corner of the canvas, a flattened-out umbrella with its sections painted in different colours and his Travelogue costumes are redolent of this part of Charlene. In fact, I was surprised by the extent to which umbrellas and parachutes appeared throughout the exhibition. They seemed to permeate most periods of Rauschenberg’s output.

Untitled (Spread) 1983 Solvent transfer and acrylic on wood panel, with umbrellas 188.6 x 245.7 x 88.9 cm © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York
Untitled (Spread), 1983
Solvent transfer and acrylic on wood panel, with umbrellas
188.6 x 245.7 x 88.9 cm
© Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Then the exhibition also had on display material relating to Trisha Brown’s 1979 Glacial Decoy, for which Rauschenberg provided costume designs that required the use of sheer, white materials. He also provided the set, which consisted largely of a series of his photographs that were projected in a particular rotation onto four screens at the back of the stage space as the dance unfolded. There was video footage of Glacial Decoy for visitors to view and also, projected onto an exhibition wall in the manner in which they appeared on stage, were the photographs that made up the set.

One other item (or two items) interested me—Factum I and Factum II. These two works (combines) were painted simultaneously in 1957. Rauschenberg apparently said he made them because he was interested in ‘the role that accident played in my work’. They reminded me of those ‘spot the difference’ games, and the differences included drips of paint in one that were not the same in the other. But given the date at which they were painted—a time when Rauschenberg was closely involved with Cunningham and John Cage—that interest in ‘accident’ in a work must surely reflect the influence of Cunningham and Cage.

This was an exceptional exhibition, curated jointly by curators from Tate Modern and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. It was a great insight into the long and varied career of one of the world’s boldest artists, and there was much to be enjoyed for those whose major interest is in dance and collaboration.

Michelle Potter, 12 February 2017

Featured image: Costume from Travelogue (detail) as displayed in the exhibition INVENTION: Merce Cunningham and Collaborators, Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center, New York, 2007. Photo: Neville Potter


‘Crises’ (1960). Merce Cunningham

20 June 2015, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Merce Cunningham made Crises in 1960 and it premiered on 19 August of that year at the American Dance Festival at Connecticut College. Made for four women and one man, it was, in Cunningham’s own words, ‘an adventure in togetherness’. He said: ‘I decided to allow for the dancers … contacting each other, not only through holding or being held, but also by outside means. I used elastic bands around a wrist, an arm, a waist or a leg. By one dancer inserting a hand under the band on another they were attached but also at the same instant free.’ It has always seemed to me, however, that Cunningham’s explanations are interesting, as indeed is this one about Crises, but that watching his dances is an entirely different experience. What the dance is ‘about’ is secondary to the nature of the vocabulary and the structure of the choreography.

Crises, which is performed to music by Conlon Nancarrow, was reprised for just three performances at the new Whitney Museum of American Art in New  York as part of Anywhere in time: a Conlon Nancarrow festival. It was reconstructed and staged by former Cunningham dancer Jennifer Goggans and performed in the Whitney’s Susan and John Hess Theater, a beautiful performance space where white translucent blinds create a hazy backcloth of the Hudson River.

Rebecca Hadley and Benny Olk in Merce Cunningham's 'Crises' (1960)

Rebecca Hadley and Benny Olk in Merce Cunningham’s Crises (1960), New York, 2015

All five dancers, freelance professional performers working with the Merce Cunningham Trust Fellowship program, were beautifully in command of those features that make Cunningham’s choreography such an articulate and visually beautiful vocabulary. All five dancers filled the space around them as they moved and every movement was cleanly executed and beautifully in balance, whether via a centred or an off-centred movement. And there was a lovely flow to each movement as it moved smoothly onto the next. Then, every dancer was able to isolate different parts of the body to achieve particular effects. Tessa Montoya, for example, had moments when the upper part of her body shook wildly as her arms rippled up and down. At the same time the lower part of her body was held firmly and perfectly centered.

I especially enjoyed Erin Dowd’s dancing, right from the start when she entered from downstage and about halfway up the diagonal executed a stunning and unexpected grand jeté. Perhaps the highlight of her performance for me though was a duet with Benny Olk. He walked her down the diagonal supporting her from the waist. She faced upstage for the entire time and lent back from the waist as she stepped backwards, her long hair almost sweeping the floor. Her supporting leg was bent at the knee with the supporting foot on demi-pointe, while the working leg executed a high developpé to the front. Amazing control!

Another highlight was a sequence performed by Vanessa Knouse and others that again involved enormous control and core strength. It consisted of a slow rise, a bend of the knees while still on demi-pointe, a lift of one arm overhead and a bend back (with the dancer still on demi-pointe, knees bent) until the lifted arm reached the floor behind the dancer. The move, performed completely unsupported, was repeated many times. It was hypnotic viewing.

The discussion afterwards mostly concerned Nancarrow’s music, given that the performance was part of a festival devoted to him. We were given a brief history of how the music came to be recorded for use in this restaging of Crises, and heard some of Nancarrow’s music on a player piano. It seems that the Cunningham company used Nancarrow’s music before it had ever been recorded commercially and so gave a boost to his career. But some interesting comments were made and queries raised about whether, with Crises, the dance and the music reflected each other. Cunningham himself said: ‘The music … by Conlon Nancarrow was added after the dance was choreographed.’

Robert Rauschenberg designed the work, dressing the dancers in leotards and tights in various shades of red (including yellow as ‘an exaggerated extreme of red’). For this restaging, unitards were used and colours kept as close as possible to those of the originals.

It was an absolute delight to see this early Cunningham work with its inventive and surprising choreography. What luck to have been in the Whitney at just the right time!

Michelle Potter, 22 June 2015

NOTE: All quotes above are from David Vaughan, Merce Cunningham 65 Years, an iPad app from the Merce Cunningham Trust.

‘Dance’. Lucinda Childs Dance Company

25 October 2014, Théâtre de la ville, Paris, Festival d’automne

Lucinda Childs made her hour-long work Dance, performed to music by Philip Glass, in 1979. The work was revived in 2009 and a filmed version from 1979, shot by visual artist Sol LeWitt as his part in the 1979 collaboration, was digitally remastered and used as an accompanying component in the revival. I didn’t manage to catch Dance in Australia when it was shown at the Festival of Perth in 2012, but the revival is currently touring in the northern hemisphere and I was lucky enough to see it recently at the Festival d’automne.

The title, as notes for the production tell us, was inspired by Merce Cunningham’s statement that dance is expressive only of itself, and by Gertrude Stein’s remark that ‘A rose is a rose is a rose’. Dance is indeed ‘about’ dance. There is no narrative and the work is most commonly regarded as an iconic piece of late minimalist art. But behind the facade of minimalism is a structural and visual complexity.

Artists of Luncinda Childs Dance Company in 'Dance'. Photo: Sally Cohn

Artists of Lucinda Childs Dance Company in Dance, 2009Photo: © Sally Cohn

The work consists of three separate sections each about the same length—twenty minutes. In the opening section, the dancers—eleven in the company I saw—move across the stage from left to right, mostly working in pairs, with their dancing pushed along comet-like by the Glass score. At first they seem to be repeating the same movements—small jetés (grands jetés style but done sideways); small turns; and off-centre, tilted movements—but gradually it becomes clear there are many small variations and changes of tempo, punctuated by moments of stillness, or moments when the stage is briefly empty. The footage, projected onto a scrim, follows the dancers’ real-time movements, giving two views of the choreography. At times the footage seems to be super-imposed onto the dancers. Sometimes still shots from the film appear. Sometimes single figures are there. Sometimes the projections are above the dancers, as if the stage space is a two-storeyed structure. Sometimes the screen is split.

This technique, finely integrated with the performance, produces some interesting results, not only because of the visual complexity it produces, but because it shows the different styles of the dancers of 1979 and those of today. While the dancers on film appeared to be much more relaxed and loose limbed, I admired the precision of the present company, especially in the arms and carriage of the upper body. Their dancing seemed to me to be much more aligned with the mathematical, or highly ordered qualities of Childs’ choreography.

The central section, a solo originally danced by Childs, begins with a larger than life-sized image of Childs, almost pushing itself into our space. At first it seems like a still from the footage, but then Childs blinks! After a while the image disappears and the solo in real-time begins, with choreography more focused on ‘every day style’ movements—casual walking and swinging of the arms.

In the final section the dancers work in fours and the floor patterns they create are square, or take on the form of a parallelogram, in contrast to the horizontal lines of the first section. The work comes to a climax superbly, with a quartet of dancers demonstrating the strength of the company’s technique—those fouettés sautés with arms whipping into stretched second position were beautifully executed. Then in a surprise move, which I probably should have expected, the work came to an abrupt end.

I was curious that the film showed Dance being performed on some kind of a floor cloth marked out in squares, large and small. Some had dark borders, others had lighter ones. It was like one of those puzzles that asks, ‘How many squares can you see in this drawing’? I assume this was Sol Le Witt’s work but I can’t be sure. I wondered if the original production was performed on this squared design, or whether it was created just for the film. But all in all Dance was a totally fascinating collaborative work full of intricacies, and splendidly performed.

Michelle Potter, 26 October 2014

John Baldessari installation

’13 Rooms’. Kaldor Public Art Project

13 Rooms, 11–21 April 2013, Pier 2/3 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay

The city of Sydney has just finished playing host to an ambitious project of installation art, or more correctly perhaps of performance art in which human bodies behaved as sculpture, sometimes moving sculpture, sometimes talking sculpture, existing for a moment in time before going home, or in some cases being replaced by another shift of bodies. The event took place in the mysteriously cavernous space of Pier 2/3 with individual installations/performances showing in purpose-built, small white rooms designed by Harry Seidler & Associates.

'13 Rooms', the space

There was a dance element to one installation, Revolving Door by American artists Allora & Calzadilla. This piece of performance art was choreographed by Rafael Bonachela and performed by dancers of Sydney Dance Company augmented by students from Brent Street, a Sydney performing arts academy. The human ‘door’ of what was a circular space inside one room was a line of bodies representing the internal structure of a revolving door. This human chain of bodies came to a standstill occasionally, as indeed revolving doors do when no-one is using them, then took up the movement again sometimes with linked arms, sometimes with raised arms. Occasionally they would clap hands, lift arms, sit down or engage in some other simple activity.


There was of course no music for the dancers to keep time with so to keep the rhythm and to maintain a straight line they had to rely on body time, a concept with which Bonachela is, I’m sure, familiar given his interest in the work of Merce Cunningham. The need to maintain a completely blank look appeared to be another requirement and there were one or two unsettling moments for me, and perhaps for other viewers, when it became apparent that one dancer was focusing on me in order to maintain his blank expression. Does one look away or stare back, I wondered?

Revolving Door also had its amusing moments. Some viewers ventured into the circular space, which had an exit door on two sides, and got caught up in the movement, escaping just in time as the human door pursued its relentless pathway.

And just as body time, where dancers have to sense how and when the bodies of their colleagues move, is a characteristic of Cunningham’s work, so was performance art a component of the early aesthetic of Merce Cunningham and John Cage and their designers, in particular Robert Rauschenberg. Together Cunningham, Cage and Rauschenberg and a collection of dancers and other artists and musicians presented at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1952 what is generally regarded as the first ‘happening’ in the United States, Theatre Piece No. 1. Rauschenberg went on to create many acts of performance art, usually with dancers involved, while Cunningham’s Events reflect an ongoing interest in one-off activities.

The whole event was interesting from the point of view of what is generally regarded as the impermanence of performance art. These installations were largely works that had been installed elsewhere around the world including in Manchester in 2011 and Essen in 2012. As John McDonald remarked in his review of the show for The Sydney Morning Herald on 13‒14 April: ‘It is a relatively novel idea that performances may be reconstructed by different performers years after their first appearance…Many of the most famous pieces were staged in obscure locations to small audiences. We know them only in the form of grainy, decayed videos or poor-quality stills’.

Another installation I especially enjoyed was Damien Hirst’s work, first made in 1992, in which a set of twins sits in front of two of Hirst’s spot paintings, which although they look alike are quite different from each other. The situation gained an added interest when a set of twins from amongst the onlookers asked to be photographed in the installation.


And on the day I visited, the performer in John Baldessari’s Thirteen Colourful Inside Jobs was engaged in repainting her room from aqua to flamingo pink.

13 Rooms was an undertaking of Kaldor Public Art Projects.

Michelle Potter, 22 April 2013

Featured image: Moment from John Baldessari’s Thirteen Colourful Inside Jobs, 13 Rooms, Kaldor Public Art project. Photo: Michelle Potter

The Merce app

David Vaughan’s Merce Cunningham. Fifty Years was published in New York by Aperture in 1997. It was described on the title page as a ‘chronicle and commentary’, which it is, containing as it does a chronological account of Cunningham’s career from its beginnings until 1994. In 2012, Aperture and the Cunningham Dance Foundation released an updated version of the book for iPad. The app contains the material in the original book and continues Vaughan’s chronicle and commentary in the same kind of format. It takes the reader from 1994 until Cunningham’s death in 2009 and on a little further until the end of the Legacy Tour in 2011.

Screenshot from 'Merce Cunningham: 65 years'Screenshot from Merce Cunningham: 65 years (Aperture and Cunningham Dance Foundation, 2012). Designer Didier Garcia, Developer Larson Associates

But of course as an app Merce Cunningham: 65 years is able to offer a range of enticing audio-visual items. They include extracts from a number of Cunningham dances, including some black and white archival material and some extracts from documentaries; excerpts from a series of filmed interviews with Cunningham conducted by David Vaughan; excerpts from a filmed series called Mondays with Merce, in which Cunningham recalls anecdotes and events from the past; and something I really enjoyed, Cunningham reading his seminal essay of 1952, Space, time and dance.

Sadly, but for good reasons no doubt, the moving image excerpts are all too brief. One of the most interesting items, however, is an excerpt, only recently discovered, from Martha Graham’s 1940 work Every soul is a circus featuring Cunningham, Graham and Eric Hawkins. Cunningham, then not much more than twenty, enters and dances a short solo. He jumps and prances, changes direction suddenly, sinks to the floor. He is as light as a feather and moves like quicksilver. It’s a remarkable view of Cunningham the young dancer.

The photographs in this app are breathtaking. I was especially moved by some of the more recent ones, with which I am not so familiar. What they do

'Nearly Ninety', 2009. Photo © Stephanie BergerNearly Ninety, 2009. Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House, 16 April 2009. From Merce Cunningham: 65 years (Aperture and Cunningham Dance Foundation, 2012). Photo © Stephanie Berger

is show fabulously trained, articulate bodies. Reading Cunningham’s essays reproduced in this app, listening to him in interviews and reading his thoughts throughout, all his beliefs about dancing are there to see on the bodies of his dancers. Similarly, looking at the short extracts of film footage, the same understanding of how the body positions itself and moves in time and space is absolutely apparent. Look, for example, at Cédric Andrieux in an extract from Suite for five or Holley Farmer in Loose time.

There are also some fabulous photographs from the Beacon Events series, taken during residencies at Dia: Beacon, a gallery space in Beacon a small city not far from Manhattan where Cunningham choreographed a series of site-specific events responding to the art on display.

'Beacon Events', 2007−2009. Photo © Stephanie BergerBeacon Events, 2007-2009. Dia Art Foundation, Beacon, NY. From Merce Cunningham: 65 years (Aperture and Cunningham Dance Foundation, 2012). Photo © Stephanie Berger

In addition, this app has a wonderful bibliography (expanded from the original book); a list of works; an extensive gallery of images; a small gallery of Cunningham’s drawings; another small gallery of pages from his journals; and several of Cunningham’s essays of which the 1994 How to cook a macrobiotic meal in a hotel room is an absolute delight. The app is also a remarkable record of how Cunningham never stopped investigating the new, and never stopped collaborating with others who also worked to discover new ways of making art, right up until the end.

I had some minor issues when I first starting using this app with navigation, which sometimes is a right to left swipe and sometimes an upwards movement. But that was soon over and the navigation is quite logical given that the app is quite large. The audio-visual material is embedded in the app so once downloaded no active internet connection is required. Merce Cunningham: 65 years is a remarkable initiative. It is available through the iTunes store, is available for iPad only and is worth every cent of the $15 or so that it costs.

All images reproduced with permission and courtesy of Aperture.

Michelle Potter, 13 January 2013

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Dance diary. August 2012

  • America’s irreplaceable dance treasures

This month my essays in the series America’s irreplaceable dance treasures: the first 100 went online on the website of the Dance Heritage Coalition. I was commissioned to write on Merce Cunningham and Rudolf Nureyev. The Irreplaceable treasures site is something to be treasured in itself. It is a continuing source of regret to me that in Australia we no longer have something similar. See my previous post on the demise of Australia Dancing: the Australia Dancing site was admired and used not just in Australia but around the world.

  • Tammi Gissell

I continue to be impressed with dancer Tammi Gissell who earlier in August was the solo performer in Liz Lea’s work in progress ‘Seeking Biloela’. A follow up conversation with Gissell revealed her strong and much treasured connections to her indigenous heritage. It was also interesting to hear her thoughts about working with scientists at CSIRO. She said: ‘What is also exciting for me in working with Liz is the opportunity to work with the scientists at CSIRO and to see the absolute relationship between traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge and how they support each other. For example, the scientists confirm that the Black Cockatoo rides ahead of the rain currents, heralding fertility for the land and people’.

Tammi Gissell 2012. Dance diary August. Photo Lorna SimTammi Gissell in rehearsal for ‘Seeking Biloela’, 2012. Photo: Lorna Sim

Gissell has recently been commissioned to create two new works for the Perth-based Ochre Contemporary Dance Company for a forthcoming season. She will choreograph one herself and make the other in collaboration with Jacob Lehrer. She is also currently in discussions with Queensland Theatre Company to develop a new work in 2013.

  • Claudia Gitelman

I was sorry to hear, just a day or so after posting my review of On stage alone, edited by Claudia Gitelman and Barbara Palfy, that Claudia Gitelman had died. Gitelman was associate professor emerita at Rutgers University, the State University of New Jersey, and was well-known for her uncompromising scholarship. Her published writing includes a study of Hanya Holm. She also co-edited and contributed to a critical analysis of the work of Alwin Nikolais with whose company she performed. Here is a link to a brief obituary.

  • Time in motion

The exhibition venue at the State Theatre in Melbourne is currently showing an exhibition celebrating the Australian Ballet’s 50th anniversary. Called Time in motion: 50 years of the Australian Ballet and curated by Margot Anderson, the Arts Centre Melbourne’s curator of dance and opera, the exhibition shows a diverse range of material including footage (some of which is archival), photographs, designs and memorabilia. It covers, if randomly, the company’s history from its first performance of Swan Lake in 1962 up to the triple bill, Infinity, staged in 2012.

Natasha Kusen 2004 Photo Justin SmithNatasha Kusen of the Australian Ballet in Serenade, 2004. Choreography G Balanchine ©The George Balanchine Trust. Photo: Justin Smith

I was especially taken by the works on paper from set and costumes designers working for the Australian Ballet across the decades. They ranged from highly detailed works, such as that by Kristian Fredrikson for Franz in the 1979 production of Coppélia, to others that were simply pencilled shapes, such as the designs by Moritz Junge for Wayne McGregor’s 2009 production, Dyad 1929. I especially liked the designs by Akira Isogawa for Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet (2011). They looked like they had been drawn in fine black pen on cloth rather than paper and were careful works of art with fabric swatches attached to become part of the art work rather pinned or stapled on in a less than careful manner. But probably my favourite was Michael Pearce’s design for the character played by Simone Goldsmith in Stephen Baynes’ At the edge of Night (1997). I loved how it was presented as a collage of sources with costume drawings complemented by historical images and a fabric swatch carefully placed to enhance the total effect.

My one gripe is that there were some issues with the display of archival footage. Some of the footage made the dancers look decidedly short and dumpy. While one can make excuses (perhaps) for the 1960s footage, there is no excuse for having Lisa Bolte and Robert Curran look short and dumpy in footage of Baynes’ beautiful pas de deux from Edge of night. I know they don’t look like that and suspect that something as simple as a change of monitor might have made a difference.

Time in motion finishes in Melbourne on 23 September 2012 and then goes to Sydney where it will be hung at the State Library of New South Wales, 12 November 2012–10 February 2013.

Michelle Potter, 31 August 2012

American Ballet Theatre. Fall season 2011

12–13 November 2011, City Center, New York

New York City’s newly refurbished City Center theatre was the venue for American Ballet Theatre’s Fall season, a program of nine, one-act works by contemporary choreographers presented over a short period of a few days. Just three of those works, Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas, Demis Volpi’s Private Light and The Garden of Villandry choreographed by Martha Clarke, Robby Barnett and Felix Blaska, were accompanied by live music. This music was played on stage in each case: a grand piano for Seven Sonatas, four guitars played alternately by one musician for Private Light and a piano trio for The Garden of Villandry. The remaining works were performed to taped music.

The highlight for me was Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas, about which I have written separately. But I was also pleased to see Merce Cunningham’s Duets, originally made in 1980. In this work for six couples Cunningham’s inventiveness was patently clear, especially in the complex partnering that was an essential feature of the work. But there were also moments when his choreography showed its modernist qualities, movement stripped back to essentials with an emphasis on clear shapes filling the space around the body, and with a strong sense of focus and line, albeit often set off centre. There were jarring moments, however, when the dancers seemed unable to detach themselves from a balletic need to project emotion through the face and via bodily embellishments to the choreography. Paloma Herrera, for example, dancing the second duet with Eric Tamm looked a little too much like a swan queen at one stage as she nestled into her partner’s shoulder and wrapped an arm around him at hip level. As beautiful as she looked, it was not quite Cunningham.

Paul Taylor had two works in the season, the classic Company B, always enjoyable, and a new work choreographed in 2011 called Black Tuesday. This latter work, danced to songs from the era of the Great Depression, provided a great showcase for some of the company’s soloists. Misty Copeland for example danced with verve and panache from beginning to end and especially in a solo, ‘The boulevard of broken dreams’, while Gemma Bond gave a gutsy, crowd-pleasing performance in her solo ‘I went hunting and the big bad wolf was dead’. Santo Loquasto dressed the dancers for Black Tuesday in brown, black and grey outfits in 1930s style with an eye catching assortment of fabrics and patterns and a range of accessories: hats, caps, stockings, gaiters, suspenders and the like. While perhaps not world-shattering choreographically with its mix of musical comedy routines and 1930s jitterbug-style movements, it was a fun work, well structured and full of interest from start to finish.

Twyla Tharp had three works on the program. Sadly I missed Sinatra Suite on this occasion but caught two performances of In the Upper Room and one of a duet entitled Known by Heart (‘Junk’) Duet. In the Upper Room was something of a disappointment. I have seen it danced better in Australia and it was unfortunate that the first cast I saw seemed not to be able to last the distance let alone look as though they were dancing together in the same ballet. In the end the remarkable Herman Cornejo looked quite idiosyncratic without a strong backup from his colleagues.

The second performance was, however, distinguished by a spectacular performance from Paloma Herrera as the main pointe girl. She had such assertiveness, such control of those slow turns, and such powerful technique as she handled slides into splits followed by a lift from the floor into a fish dive pose, or when hurling her body through space to be caught in some astonishing position. Misty Copeland danced strongly as the third sneaker girl (a role I can’t help but identify with the former Australian Ballet dancer Katie Ripley). Sascha Radetsky, Blaine Hoven and Patrick Ogle showed how they had lasted the distance when they came on for their curtain calls and each reprised a step from the work.

Known by Heart was new to me. Dating to 1998 and danced to selections from Donald Knaack’s Junk Music, it was performed by an ebullient Gillian Murphy partnered by Blaine Hoven. Basically the work is a variation on the traditional format of the pas de deux with duet, variations and coda, and the scene was set with an explosive opening as a diagonal shaft of light highlighted a generous grand jete from Murphy, who was supported by a finger tip hold from Hoven. There followed a battery of fast paced movements. Murphy at times even seemed to be tap dancing on pointe. Both Murphy and Hoven stylishly carried off the mixed nature of the choreography—a bit of ballroom, a bit of musical comedy, a bit of classical while all the time maintaining a somewhat cheeky partnership.

The Garden of Villandry, a work made in 1979 was very pretty but was without a huge amount of depth, although it was beautifully expressive of the Schubert Trio No 1 in B Flat, Opus 99 to which it was danced. I admired the lilting movements of bodies and the intertwining of arms throughout. As a kind of Edwardian love triangle it was understated and lingeringly melancholic as two men vied for the attentions of one woman. It was given a pleasant performance by a lovely Veronika Part partnered by Roddy Doble and Gennadi Saveliev.

I was least impressed by the Volpi work, Private Light, especially the sections where the choreography seemed to be more classically oriented. Then the dancers seemed almost to be engaging in centre practice and centre practice with little choreographic interest. And there was a lot of lining up and breaking out of line, huddling together and kissing in the dark. Volpi seemed too to be unable to choreograph for the arms, which were often left hanging unimaginatively at the dancer’s side. But one dancer, Simone Messmer, stood out for her beautifully articulated body and her ability to use her chest to project emotion. It was  a shame that the lighting was so dark that it was almost impossible to see her until the lights were raised for curtain calls. Perhaps the darkness was the source of the title?

It is always a pleasure to see a strong company performing a range of works that challenge the dancers stylistically. And is an equal pleasure to be challenged oneself by such a range of contemporary choreography as ABT presented in this short season.

Michelle Potter, 17 November 2011

Crisp, Cunningham, Choreography

I have commented elsewhere on this site and in The Canberra Times on the legacy tour of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, now drawing to an end. The tour has generated all kinds of reviews over the almost two years of its run to date, not the least of which is a recent one by Clement Crisp published in The Financial Times of 6 October 2011, which relates to a Cunningham season at the Barbican in London. I love reading Crisp’s reviews, which are often outrageously opinionated (in my opinion!!), but which often also contain many words of wisdom born of many years of experience.

Given that choreography has been a point of discussion among readers of and contributors to this website recently, the following extract from Crisp’s Cunningham review is more than interesting.

‘The Merce Cunningham Dance Company, as the choreographer left it when he died two years ago, will cease to exist at the year’s end. Cunningham’s wish that his troupe should cease must be seen as wise. The keepers of the flame who proclaim that “this is what our Dear Master intended” are among the added indignities to mortality.

Choreography mutates, Chinese-whispers fashion and for all the stern guardianship that seeks to protect dance, it alters, as do bodies and training and the social attitudes of an audience. Today’s Ashton, even today’s carefully guarded Balanchine, change as transmission of a text oh-so-insidiously erodes a step, an emotional point. Cunningham decided his company—dancers with whom he worked on a daily basis—must end as near as dammit with him’.

Michelle Potter, 12 October 2011

Legacy program. Merce Cunningham Dance Company

In the final year of its legacy program, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company has just completed a season at the Joyce Theater in New York showing CRWDSPCR (1993), Quartet (1982) and Antic Meet (1958). This program not only spanned three decades of Merce Cunningham’s creative output, but it represented three major strands in his creative process.

The program moved backwards in time, although this was probably not a wise programming decision. Antic Meet, which closed the program, did not have the strength to bring the evening to a conclusion on a high note. It was, however, totally fascinating as representative of work from the early Cunningham period when money was short, the company was small and collaboration between three artistic giants—Cunningham, John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg—was a highlight of the company’s work. A series of slight unrelated moments for six dancers (four women and two men), Antic Meet is vaudeville, theatre of the absurd and a dada event rolled into one with the strength of the piece coming from the visual and musical accompaniments and the juxtaposition of sections rather than from the choreography itself.

Rauschenberg’s costumes, consisting of various additions to basic black tights and a black leotard, are an eclectic mix of  ‘found’ items.


In one section the four women wear dresses originally fashioned from government surplus parachutes. The women are joined by a male dancer wearing a four-armed neckless sweater (made originally by Cunningham) and the sweater in fact becomes the dancer as it is swung, twisted, stretched and struggled with by the live dancer underneath its eccentric construction.

Others of Rauschenberg’s costumes include a fur coat (originally racoon), a long Victorian-style nightdress (both found by Rauschenberg in thrift shops), and some remarkably contemporary-looking black T-shirts with a plastic hoop inserted around the hemline—a little like very short, misplaced tutus. Along with a chair strapped to a dancer’s back, an assortment of props including a door on wheels that leads nowhere, and the accompaniment of John Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra played live at the Joyce by five distinguished musicians, the whole is light heartedly bizarre.

The middle piece, Quartet, is the most powerful of the three works on the program and represents Cunningham’s engagement with electronic music and with two major collaborators from the 1970s and onwards, designer Mark Lancaster and composer David Tudor. Although called Quartet, it was made for five dancers, a quartet who perform Cunningham’s signature choreography of off-balance poses, asymmetrical partnering and fast turns, and a fifth dancer who remains separated from the four and whose choreography is composed of twisted, sudden movements especially of the arms, largely made while standing on the spot. This fifth dancer was originally Cunningham and the work was created as arthritis was beginning to take its toll on Cunningham’s body. In the Joyce season the role was danced by the company’s current director of choreography, Robert Swinston. It is tempting to suggest that Swinston was posing as Cunningham. But he isn’t Cunningham and what Swinston was able to suggest was that Quartet is a work about belonging and not belonging.


With the dancers dressed simply by Lancaster in functional dance wear in luscious colours of olive, brown and burnished reds and blues, Quartet was performed to Tudor’s electronic score Sextet for Seven, played live by Takehisa Kosugi, the company’s current music director. Despite the theme of alienation and the somewhat chilling sound of the score, described as ‘six homogenous voices and one wandering voice’, Quartet is not a depressing work. In fact it seemed to me to be a very peaceful work as if in Cunningham’s mind the concept of outsider had been resolved.

The opening piece on the program, CRWDSPCR, is perhaps best summed up by a member of the audience who sprang to her feet as the work finished and shouted ‘Bit of work!!’ It is indeed a ‘bit of work’. It begins with its full complement of thirteen dancers on stage and for the twenty-five minutes or so that the dance lasts, apart from one slow solo section, the dancers weave themselves cross the space to John King’s electronic score, blues ’99. The energy is frenetic as the dancers manoeuvre past each other like the crowds at Grand Central Station, gathering momentum as they proceed. Pronounced either Crowd spacer, or Crowds pacer, a double edged notion that gives a clue to the nature of the work, CRWDSPCR is a little like ordered chaos but brilliantly designed choreographically and as brilliantly executed. The excitement it generated in the audience suggests that it would perhaps have been better placed at the end of the program.

CRWDSPCR represents Cunningham’s early but ongoing interest in using computer technology as a choreographic tool and he created it using the software program LifeForms (now DanceForms). It is costumed by Mark Lancaster in tights and leotards in fourteen blocks of colour to echo the software program. King’s score was again played live by King and Kosugi.

What a pleasure it was to see this this outstanding company in works from across the repertoire with music played live by such remarkable musicians. It was clear reinforcement of the vital role Cunningham, his company as it existed across many decades, and the astonishing collaborators with whom he worked, have made to the world’s dance culture.

Michelle Potter, 27 March 2011

‘The Art of Touch’, ‘RainForest’, ‘A Linha Curva’. Rambert Dance Company

The recent triple bill from the Rambert Dance Company performing at Sadler’s Wells was certainly diverse. It spanned four decades of modern dance making with a mid career work from Siobhan Davies, The Art of Touch; a classic from Merce Cunningham, RainForest; and a show stopper, A Linha Curva, from Israeli choreographer Itzik Galili.

RainForest, which occupied the central position in the program, is over forty years old having had its first showing in 1968 in Buffalo, New York. Today it still looks like a ground breaking collaboration. Cunningham’s choreography was slow and considered and at the same time, with its sharp turns and twists and its flailing arm movements, it had a primeval feel to it. David Tudor’s score, which uses household objects as loud speakers (set up as an installation in the orchestra pit on this occasion), produced an assortment of electronic hums, whistles and jungle roars. Andy Warhol’s helium-filled silver pillows floated randomly across the stage space, their transit occasionally interrupted by the dancers’ movements. The Rambert company put its own stamp onto the performance, dancing I suspect in a more emotive or expressive manner than would have been the case if it had been performed by Cunningham’s own company. It was by far the most thought-provoking work on the program and was also the most visually and aurally seductive.

The Art of Touch, a choreographic look at the sense of touch made in 1995, opened the program and seemed mostly playful with movement that scurried along to the sounds of five keyboard sonatas by Scarlatti and a commissioned work for harpsichord from Matteo Fargion. A luscious set (by David Buckland) consisting of golden walls, which changed hue and occasionally darkened under Ian Beswick’s lighting, added a certain mystery to the work. Angela Towler and Miguel Altunaga were the stand out dancers especially in a slow, complex duet.

The closing work, A Linha Curva, had the audience screaming with excitement by the end. Created originally for a company in Brazil in 2005, it was filled with racy movement in which the dancers, clad in tight lycra shorts and revealing tops, pushed their pelves forward and wiggled their bottoms suggestively. This was done to lots of drums, other percussive sounds and shouts from the dancers. It was a perfect closing work and great fun but I’d much rather be watching the Rambert company dancing a work with more substance.

Michelle Potter, 1 June 2010