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

Rafael Bonachela’s dancers

Last week a group of dancers from Sydney Dance Company (SDC) made a brief guest appearance on So you think you can dance Australia. They performed a short excerpt from 6 Breaths, the most recent work created on them by their artistic director Rafael Bonachela. Without wishing to detract from the six dancers who had reached one of the last stages of the So you think you can dance competition, the SDC dancers were absolutely mesmerising. With their streamlined bodies, clearly defined musculature and eloquent limbs it was clear that they were reaping the benefits of strong leadership and vision and, as well, of a particular kind of dance teaching.

6 Breaths, Sydney Dance Company

Dancers of Sydney Dance Company in 6 Breaths. Photo Jeff Busby. Courtesy of Sydney Dance Company

I was lucky that I had an interview set up with Bonachela the following weekend for an article to be published elsewhere, so I couldn’t wait to ask what was happening in the SDC studios. What was producing dancers with such an exceptional capacity to articulate movement and with such a clear sense of focus? I guess I should have seen the writing on the wall (or on the dancers’ bodies) and twigged that Merce Cunningham was in there somewhere.

Bonachela told me that his dancers take both classical ballet and Cunningham technique classes in fairly equal proportions. Cunningham technique, he said, gives the torso extra strength and flexibility. Springing to his feet he demonstrated a classical attitude (think of the familiar statue of Mercury), and then the way the same pose can be used by Cunningham where the spine, still elongated, can be pitched forward in a totally different, contemporary alignment (think of Cunningham’s Beach Birds or Beach Birds for Camera).

Watching 6 Breaths in full shortly afterwards, I looked on with this new knowledge and, while Bonachela is absolutely right about the torso, his dancers also show that every part of the body is an articulate component of the choreography. In addition, they have that rare ability to highlight the space in and through which the body moves and which surrounds each part of the body. Their movements have ‘weight’ — and I don’t mean here that they are heavy! Both the notion that every part of the body can be articulate, and that the body moves in space, are deeply embedded in Cunningham’s work.

And lest this should sound as though 6 Breaths is choreographically dry and abstracted, I have to record what is perhaps my favourite moment in the work. Chen Wen enters quietly from a downstage wing. Coming to a halt, still on the side of the stage space, he places two hands on his right hip and slowly lifts his right leg to arabesque, foot flexed at the end of the arabesque line. The ‘hands on the hip’ move is a very deliberate one, as if to show that when the leg lifts to arabesque the pelvis must tilt forward. But as this kind of analytical testing comes to an end when the arabesque reaches full height, Chen Wen’s torso stretches upwards and the breath that gives birth to this expressive and lyrical stretch continues through the neck as the head tilts slightly backwards. From there the movement swirls smoothly into the next phrase. It’s over quite quickly but it is just breathtaking in the way it generates so many thoughts about so many aspects of dance.

6 Breaths is an exquisite work even without any kind of technical analysis. Apart from the choreography and the performance of it, in terms of music and design it looks forward to a new and exciting collaborative aesthetic from Sydney Dance Company. But as I left the theatre I could not help but hope that Bonachela will be that rare kind of artistic director who will always be searching for an understanding of the innate qualities of movement, for whom physicality (not just physical tricks) is what makes dance dance — whatever kind of dance we might be talking about — and who wants his dancers to know these things too and be able to translate that knowledge into movement. Now that would make Sydney Dance a quite remarkable company. It would also make Bonachela one of the very few truly outstanding dance leaders.

Film clip from Stella Motion Pictures, with thanks.

© Michelle Potter, 12 April 2010

Merce Cunningham (1919-2009)

Merce Cunningham’s death on 26 July 2009 in Manhattan brings to a close an astonishing life in dance. Cunningham once said ‘I didn’t become a dancer, I have always been dancing’. His remarkable career is a testament to a man who has not only always been dancing, but who has always been pushing the boundaries of dancing, including the boundaries of how it is perceived, fashioned and presented.

In 2007 I was in the exceptionally fortunate position of being co-curator of an exhibition, ‘INVENTION: Merce Cunningham and collaborators’, for the New York Public Library for the  Performing Arts. I was able to work with David Vaughan, revered archivist of the Cunningham company, to liaise with others in the company over selection of items, media activities and the creation of a new work to be performed as part of the exhibition. I also participated with Cunningham, Vaughan and the third curator, Barbara Cohen-Stratyner, in the media call, presenting to the audience on the key concepts behind the exhibition.

The following images are from INVENTION. They indicate in just a small way the extent of Cunningham’s engagement with artists from across a wide creative spectrum as he went about his daily activity of dancing.

Michelle Potter, 29 July 2009

Photos: Neville Potter, 2007