Featured image: Scott Elstermann in a moment from a performance by Cunningham Residency dancers. National Gallery of Australia, 2018.

Merce Cunningham Residency. National Gallery of Australia

The National Gallery of Australia, with support from the Embassy of the United States of America, has just finished hosting a dance residency in conjunction with its exhibition American Masters 1940–1980. Three dancers were selected to work with Jamie Scott, a former Cunningham dancer and now one of a number of such dancers charged with staging the Cunningham repertoire.

Cunningham Residency dancers with Jamie Scott (far right?) next to works by Frank Stella and Al Held. National Gallery of Australia, 2018. Photographer not identified. Dance artists not named.

The residency also relates to the centenary of the birth of Cunningham, which occurs next year, 2019.

The first thing to say is the original brief specified that one dancer was to come from the ACT. Well this didn’t happen. I can’t believe that there was not one dancer in the ACT who could have been part of the program in some way. Who knows what might have happened? Merce had courage, took risks, and loved chance. Could not those running the residency have had more courage?

It was a shame too that there seemed to be no way of knowing what exactly the dancers were performing—part of the Cunningham repertoire, but what part(s)? People who watched the performances, but who perhaps came mainly to look at the art on show, may not have cared, but I think the dance community likes to know these things. I certainly do. And who was the musician who accompanied the performances. And what composition was he playing? An announcement, or a cast sheet was needed.

Nevertheless, the three dancers, who had worked with Scott for the time that they did (one week, two, not sure), danced beautifully. It was refreshing to see again the clarity of movement that emerges from the Cunningham technique—the juxtaposition of curves and straight lines, the tilt of bodies, a delicious jump with the leg in a low arabesque that reminded me of Cunningham’s 1958 work Summerspace, the unique partnering where body builds on body, tiny detailed movements of the shoulders or hands or feet, the changing balance of the body, and so on. Aspects of Cunningham technique sometimes look simple, deceptively so, but extraordinary control and strength are needed. The performance, which lasted around 40 minutes (with an abbreviated version performed at an evening event), resonated beautifully against the background of a Sol Le Witt wall drawing, whose apparently simple structure also has a deep, conceptual strength.

It was very disappointing, however, that reference to Cunningham did not appear in the exhibition itself. Why spend what must have been a large amount of money, along with major input from the US Embassy, on a dance residency and then have so little reference to the way in which the artists represented in the exhibition collaborated with Cunningham and his company? Nor, it seems, was there anything in the publication that accompanied the exhibition, apart from a reference to a video made by Nam June Paik with film maker Charles Atlas in 1978. The video, Merce by Merce by Paik, was in fact on show but not in the exhibition. It was on another floor of the Gallery, which I only discovered after asking several people where it was.

This residency was a lost opportunity, and media support was very poor. One expects at least to be given media images that are properly labelled, and to have the performing artists adequately recognised, their work documented, and that information made available to the public.

Michelle Potter, 16 September 2018

Featured image: Scott Elstermann in a moment from a performance by Cunningham Residency dancers. National Gallery of Australia, 2018. Private collection

Featured image: Scott Elstermann in a moment from a performance by Cunningham Residency dancers. National Gallery of Australia, 2018.

 

 

'Black/GOLD' (2), The Kimberley Gallery, National Gallery of Australia, 2013

‘Life is a work of art.’ The GOLDs

28 June 2013 (dress rehearsal), National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

In my June 2013 dance diary I mentioned a show at the National Gallery of Australia called Life is a work of art performed by the GOLDs, a group of performers over the age of 55. I have now received some images from that show and what follows is not a review as such, as GOLD is not a professional company, but rather some observations on some parts of the show. Life is a work of art was co-directed by Liz Lea and Jane Ingall and was a processional performance leading the audience through the National Gallery of Australia, pausing in particular galleries where specially commissioned dances were performed.

The section that worked best for me was staged in the Kimberley Gallery where art by Rover Thomas and other indigenous artists from the Kimberley region is on display. The section, called ‘Black/GOLD’, was choreographed by Tammi Gissell, a descendant of the Muruwari nation of northwestern New South Wales. It was performed to music composed and played by Francis Gilfedder.

Gissell wrote in her program notes:
What a wonderful opportunity for Aussie Elders from all walks of life and cultural heritage to dance together in celebration of the rhythms and memories of this land. Australia now sensed freshly with knowing eyes and ears and footsteps. Black/GOLD is concerned with claiming ownership over one’s self, for this must occur to accept your role within a mob—the second yet equally important concern of the piece.

'Black/GOLD'(3). Kimberley Gallery, National Gallery of Australia, 2013
'Black/GOLD', The Kimberley Gallery, National Gallery of Australia, 2013

It struck me as I watched it that what made it especially powerful was perhaps the fact that in indigenous communities everyone dances. It seemed quite appropriate for these older, non-indigenous people to be dancing in front of indigenous art. And Francis Gilfedder, who sang and played the didgeridoo, was magnificent. Reading Gissell’s program note just increased my respect for her and the work. In the case of ‘Black/GOLD’ she chose a concept that is deeply entrenched within her heritage, made it relevant to the occasion, made it inclusive of her cast, and gave it a simplicity that belied the complexity of the concept. A real gem.

I was also impressed with ’A gentle spirit’ as a wonderful example of a site specific piece. As we progressed down a ramp to the sculpture gallery on a lower floor, we passed by Carol Mackay. She had a solo piece, which she performed at the corner of the ramp under Maria Cadoza’s Starfish. While our view of it was gone in a flash as we walked by, it was perfectly sited. Music for it was composed and played live by cellist David Pereira, but as I was at the dress rehearsal, at which he was not present, I’m not sure if he was a visual part of the piece, although from the images I received it appears not.

'A Gentle Spirit'. Moving towards Gallery 9, National Gallery of Australia, 2013
'A Gentle Spirit' (2). Moving towards Gallery 9, National Gallery of Australia, 2013

Finally, I enjoyed two pieces in the galleries of contemporary, international art: ‘Pop Art’, a piece choreographed by Liz Lea against a backdrop of works by Andy Warhol and others from the period of the 1960s; and ‘Caught between Kapoor’, an improvisation by Luke Mulders in Gallery 3.

'Life is a work of art'. 1960s Gallery, National Gallery of Australia
'Caught between Kapoor', International Galleries (Gallery 3), National Gallery of Australia, 2013

Some parts of Life is a work of art, as I mentioned in my June dance diary, worked better than others for me. Here I have simply extracted a few sections that I especially enjoyed, which is not to say that the rest of the show was not enjoyable as well. It is a wonderful community dance concept and, despite the worries that staff at the National Gallery of Australia must have had as people (carrying stools) processed past and performers danced among such precious items, I hope the Gallery will consider doing it again.

All images courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia.

Michelle Potter, 30 July 2013

Featured image: A moment from ‘Black/GOLD’, Kimberley Gallery, National Gallery of Australia, 2013

'Black/GOLD' (2), The Kimberley Gallery, National Gallery of Australia, 2013