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 (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.

Nearly 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

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 dois 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. 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

UPDATE AUGUST 2020: Unfortunately the app has not been updated so that it can be used with today’s technology. This is a shame because the audio visual content was just wonderful,


Anna Karenina. Eifman Ballet

15 August 2012, Capitol Theatre, Sydney

There is a lot to admire in Boris Eifman’s balletic interpretation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina. It is definitely not that Eifman covers all the complexities of the plot in his narrative but that, having chosen to reduce the storyline to a love triangle between the influential statesman Alexey Karenin (Oleg Markov); Anna (Nina Zmievets), his wife; and Alexey Vronsky (Oleg Gabyshev), cavalry officer and Anna’s lover; he presents a theatrically powerful distillation of the emotional heart of the novel.

Eifman emphasises individual incidents and single moments in the narrative and this approach is supported by a lighting design from Gleb Filshnitsky who uses strong spotlighting to direct the audience’s focus. I admired the quite minimal designs of the costumes by Slava Okunev with their reduced colour palette, largely of slate grey, black and white, and the multi-functioning black and gold setting by Zinovy Margolin with its architectural and historical allusions. They also supported Eifman’s vision. Alongside the three principals in this production, the corps de ballet becomes a kind of chorus filling roles as socialites, visitors to Venice, and eventually as the train that kills Anna.

Nina Zmievets and Oleg Markov in a scene from Anna Karenina, Eifman Ballet, 2012. Photo: © Cynthia Sciberras

Eifman’s choreography is an odd mixture of classical and contemporary movement. There is the temptation to think of Martha Graham, perhaps even Nacho Duato at times, and also musical comedy routines. But it is more a case of it being Eifman’s own brand of eccentric movement where bodies are twisted and contorted and thrown around dramatically. I am not particularly a fan of Eifman’s ‘flash-bang’ choreographic style, although the dancers clearly relished what they were dancing and that in itself is something to admire. For a while I didn’t notice that the women were on pointe, so focused was the choreography on flinging the body from one extraordinary shape and position to another. But once I started looking more closely I disliked the way the women used (or didn’t use) their feet. Pointe shoes look ghastly if the foot isn’t working strongly inside them and often it wasn’t, which totally destroyed the line of the leg in my opinion.

Scene from Anna Karenina, Eifman Ballet, 2012. Photo: © Cynthia Sciberras

What I really didn’t like was the Tchaikovsky mash-up to which the work was set musically. In particular, there were some musical selections that are so closely identified with other ballets as to detract from what Eifman was trying to achieve. The scene in Venice where Anna and Vronsky have fled, for example, was danced to music that is used for that wonderful Polonaise in the finale of Balanchine’s Theme and Variations. No matter how elegant those black and gold Venetian carnival costumes were, it was all but impossible not to wish one was seeing Theme and Variations instead of Anna Karenina. Similarly, the ballet opened with the music that opens Balanchine’s Serenade, and again it is hard to not visualise that ballet rather than watch what is unfolding on stage in Anna Karenina.

I think it’s worth looking at Judith Flanders’ summation of Eifman Ballet as posted on not so long ago. She wrote, ‘Boris Eifman has always divided the critics. Western audiences tend to respond the way they do to car crashes: they are appalled, but find it hard to look away. Russians, meanwhile, virtually stand on their seats and scream for more.’ There is also an interesting comment posted at the end of the Flanders’ piece!

I wasn’t appalled, there was too much to think about and plenty to admire, but to my eyes Eifman’s way of presenting ballet is definitely eccentric. Having said that, perhaps we need a few more eccentricities here in Australia?

Michelle Potter, 17 August 2012

Dance portraits by E. O. Hoppé

The name E. O. Hoppé is familiar to anyone who has put in any time researching the history of the Ballets Russes under Serge Diaghilev. Hoppé, who was born in Germany but who spent much of his professional life in England, secured the exclusive right to photograph the Diaghilev dancers when they first came to London in 1911. Some of these photographs are well known in Australia and are currently on display in the National Gallery of Australia’s exhibition, Ballets Russes: the art of costume—the well-known image of Tamara Karsavina and Adolph Bolm in Firebird, for example. But a current exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, Hoppé portraits: society, studio & street, has on show some exceptional dance portraits that are not quite as well known.

E. O. Hoppé, Olga Spessivtseva as Aurora in The Sleeping Princess, 1921. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London

Given my recent research into the 1934-1935 tour by the Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet and Olga Spessivtseva‘s role in it, I was especially interested in a portrait of Spessivtseva as Aurora in The Sleeping Princess. It was taken by Hoppé in 1921, the year of the premiere of Diaghilev’s ill-fated production of that ballet. Spessivtseva does not face the camera full on and her subdued eyes are turned to the front with a gaze that asks us to consider her as someone quite fragile. Her pale lips seem almost cold and the overall effect is haunting. Is it because we know that Spessivtseva would suffer some kind of mental illness that we read the portrait in this way? Or did Hoppé capture the essence of this enigmatic woman?

E. O. Hoppé, Portrait of Margot Fonteyn, 1935. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London

By contrast, a magnificent portrait of a young Margot Fonteyn taken in 1935 (she would have been 16) shows her looking straight at us. With lustrous eyes and full, red lips she is sensuous and confident, even slightly haughty,  and definitely ready to take on the world. Again Hoppé appears to have had a remarkable eye for capturing the essence of his sitter.

There are a number of other fascinating dance portraits in this exhibition including a great shot of Martha Graham with Ted Shawn in a tango-style pose taken in 1922 just as Graham was completing her study at the Denishawn school before joining the Greenwich Village Follies. And of course many of the Russian Ballet shots are on show. All are reproduced in the exhibition book, along with many non-dance portraits and a collection of remarkable documentary studies of day-to-day life in Britain between the wars.

Michelle Potter, 4 April 2011

Hoppé portraits: society, studio & street runs until 30 May 2011 at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London.

Exhibition book: Hoppé portraits: society, studio & street (London: National Portrait Gallery, 2011) ISBN 978 85514 4217

Snow on the mesa. Martha Graham Dance Company

24 March 2011. The Rose Theatre, New York

The 2011 New York revival of Snow on the mesa, subtitled Portrait of Martha, began in a highly theatrical manner. Three stuffed wolf heads lay on the stage floor. Three women clad in black hooded cloaks appeared at various intervals. Dramatic colours, often a brilliant blue, washed the backcloth. A single hand belonging to one of the mysterious figures was lit briefly to glow starkly in the darkness. A soundscape of rain, wolves howling, thunder and lightning broke the silence. Towards the end of this section, the first of twelve that made up the total piece, the women each picked up a stuffed head and wore it as a glove. They exited as mysteriously as they had appeared.

This opening had all the hallmarks of the best of Robert Wilson, who choreographed and designed the work for the Martha Graham Dance Company in 1995. We saw in particular his dramatic use of space in the strategic placement of the wolf heads on the floor and the mysterious arrival of the women at separate moments; we saw and heard how brilliantly he can juxtapose elements of sound and light against objects and people to set up an atmosphere; and we saw his capacity to create allusions and resonances, all surreally personal to the audience. The opening made me think of Cathy and Heathcliff on the Yorkshire moors in Wuthering Heights. Perhaps, however, those more familiar with the work of Martha Graham could see allusions to Graham or her work since this portrait of Martha was meant to evoke Graham’s creative journey.

But after this first scene, ‘The wolf wife’, the work fell apart somewhat. Can Robert Wilson seriously be considered a choreographer? I suspect not. The third section entitled ‘Navaho Rug’ was a case in point. The sole dancer looked to me a little like a golliwog or one of those Christmas Nutcracker dolls with a string that when pulled makes the dolls’ arms and legs move in a jerky fashion. It also went on for an inordinate length of time and as a result could not escape from being  unnecessarily repetitious.

Another section, which I only realised after looking back at the program must have been the section entitled ‘Very young Kachina clowns’, was a reference to a character within the Hopi tradition who engages in exaggerated behaviour. And exaggerated is the word to describe the choreography of this section. All that face-pulling simply made good dancers look silly. Similarly when the company appeared onstage all wearing long Methuselah beards (and I mean seriously long—they almost swept the floor) in the section entitled ‘Very old: ghost walkers’, I had to wonder why any choreographer would want to dress such beautiful dancers as the very elegant Katherine Crockett in such a get-up.

Apart from Crockett, the other dancer who stood out was the Chinese-born Xiaochuan Xie whose dancing in ‘Shaker interior’ with Tadej Brdnik was as minimally beautiful as the white bench that was the only item of decoration in this section. It was a travesty to have this dancer wearing one of those hideous Methuselah beards later in the piece.

We knew the work had reached its conclusion when the snow began to fall from the flies, although there were sections before this scene that seemed (wishful thinking?) like a finale. People had left before the snow of course. But then it wouldn’t be a Robert Wilson piece without a restless audience.

Michelle Potter, 24 March 2011

For images that underscore the dramatic visual look of Snow on the mesa open this link. It also gives another account and a link to yet another.

The Oracle. Meryl Tankard

19 september 2009, The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, Spring Dance

The Oracle, Meryl Tankard’s work set to Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, is a triumph. A solo work for Paul White, who dances with astonishing physicality and intensity, it is an example of how affecting a work can be when the creative team has a strongly shared vision and works single-mindedly to bring that vision into being. The Oracle was visually and choreographically focused and articulate. It moved from section to section as relentlessly as the music until it reached its dramatic conclusion.

Paul White in The Oracle. Photo: © Régis Lansac, 2009

Tankard’s choreography, with shared credit to White on the program, moved between small and intricate movements of the hands and fingers and even of the tongue, which required sensitivity of the smallest body part, and movements that demanded that White fling himself through the air, while always maintaining absolute control of the whole body as it hurtled through space. Introverted movements, sometimes executed with the dancer’s back to the audience or with his head shrouded in a chocolate-coloured length of velvety cloth, contrasted with steps of exceptional virtuosity, exuberance and extroversion. Some sections were acrobatic—at one stage White walked on his hands—others had a strong classical feel. This choreography required an extraordinarily versatile performer and White’s performance was quite simply a tour de force.

Tankard assembled The Oracle following the structure of the Stravinsky score but, in her hallmark manner, it was built on multiple layers of meaning and allusion. There were emotive links to Nijinsky, who first gave choreographic expression to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913. They were noticeable in some of the choreographic phrases, which seemed to refer back to Nijinsky’s movement phrases created for his own Rite of Spring. They were also noticeable in those moments when White seemed to be lost in a surreal world, which recalled Nijinsky’s descent into mental illness in the later years of his life. There were allusions to Martha Graham’s well known work, Letter to the World, in which she used her long skirt to give extra shape and form to her choreography. White used that long, chocolate-coloured swathe of velvet not this time to cover his head but as a skirt tied to his waist. He made it swirl through the air as he cart-wheeled and jumped and manipulated it across the floor as he slithered and twisted. The work drew on other sources of inspiration from the work of Norwegian artist Odd Nerdrum to Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman. But The Oracle is absolutely Tankard’s own. One of her great strengths as a choreographer is to make references while maintaining an individual integrity.

Regis Lansac, working again with Tankard as he has done over many years on set and video design, created an opening video sequence to a soundscape of whistling and other mechanical sounds and a recording of Magnificat by the Portuguese composer of the baroque period, João Rodrigues Esteves. This sequence picked up on aspects of the choreography and on images of White and manipulated both to explore a different view of the human body. It seemed also to set up a dance of its own that moved from the figurative to the abstract and back again melding and confusing the two ideas. At times throughout the piece Lansac’s projections and video sequences provided an evocative background. At other times they became essential to the unfolding of the dance, especially in those moments when White encountered his image on the backcloth and needed to contend with what he saw.

The Oracle was lit by Damien Cooper and Matt Cox. Highlights included the Rembrandt-esque lighting of White’s face, arms and legs in the opening moments; the expanding and contracting circle of light around whose circumference White made a slow and tentative progression; and the breathtaking closing moment as White, centre stage, jumped high into the air as a shaft of brilliant light closed down upon him.

Paul White in The Oracle. Photo: © Régis Lansac, 2009

The Oracle shows the collaborative work of Tankard and Lansac at its best. It is an awesome piece of dance and theatre and was received with well deserved shouts of bravo and a standing ovation at both performances I attended.

Michelle Potter, 21 September 2009