It is an ongoing fascination being able to watch streaming sessions of works I have seen live (often more than once). The Australian Ballet’s triple bill of Graeme Murphy’s The Narrative of Nothing, Stephen Page’s Warumuk—in the dark night, and Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929 has been no exception. From this program, Dyad 1929 stood out for the new insights into the work that it gave me.
Dyad 1929 was first seen in Australia in 2009 as part of a program calledConcord. It was, in fact, made on the Australian Ballet as part of its Ballets Russes project. We saw it again in 2013 also as part of a mixed bill, this time called Vanguard. Then this year it had just a few performances in March in Melbourne, as part of a program called Volt, before the COVID-19 pandemic closed everything down. The Volt season was cancelled.
What I especially enjoyed when watching Dyad 1929 on screen was a duet danced by Amber Scott and Adam Bull. As they came onstage for this duet there was an unexpected mood change, choreographically, visually and musically (Dyad 1929 is danced to Steve Reich’s Double Sextet). From the fast-paced first sections with their rush of extreme movement under Lucy Carter’s bright white lighting, the setting darkened as a horizontal bar of fluorescent yellow lights began to descend from the flies. A yellow circle of light appeared on the stage floor and the music, unexpectedly, became moody and slightly mysterious.
Choreographically, movements seemed less sharp. They were still extreme and filled with eccentricities—Scott executed a series of cabriole-style beats while being held by Bull in a kind of fish dive pose—but there was often a more gentle feel to much of the dancing. Having said that, occasionally a beautiful slow unfolding of the leg was followed quickly by a sudden movement, although this kind of juxtaposition is not unusual for McGregor. Then there was the moment—gone in a flash—when Scott made a small circle with thumb and index finger and held it up to her eye like a monocle. It echoed the large black circle on her costume and also the rows of black dots we see on the back- and floorcloth.
The duet was eventually interrupted by the appearance of other dancers and the work continued. But I loved seeing Scott and Bull together and I loved having the luxury of noticing tiny aspects of the choreography that I missed on previous, live viewings.
Because the streaming of Dyad 1929 finishes on 28 May 2020, below is a video of Scott and Bull rehearsing the duet I enjoyed so much. While the rehearsal in the studio lacks something of the punch that the duet had in performance, it is nevertheless a record of the choreography. It was interesting too to see Antoine Vereecken, who staged the work in 2013, giving comments at the end of the rehearsal.
Looking back at Wayne McGregor’s program note from both 2009 and 2013, I noticed he had dedicated Dyad 1929 to Merce Cunningham, who died in 2009 the year of the premiere of Dyad 1929. McGregor wrote of Cunningham that he was ‘a choreographer whose curiosity, sense of adventure and seamless collaboration knew no bounds.’ I can often see similar characteristics in McGregor’s works. Read more about my thoughts on his works at this tag.
2 March 2019. 92Y, New York (Harkness Dance Festival 2019)
In 2019 the dance world is celebrating the centenary of the birth of Merce Cunningham with events across the globe. Most, not surprisingly, are being held throughout the United States. In Australia we had just one event, and I found it highly disappointing. So, it was a thrill to be in New York on a brief visit at a time when the 92nd St Y was holding a program (part of the 2019 Harkness Dance Festival) called A Feast of Cunningham. It was led by Sydney-born Melissa Toogood, a former dancer with Merce Cunningham Dance Company and a distinguished coach and teacher of Cunningham technique.
The program consisted of solos from Doubles (1984) and Loose Time (2002); Septet (1953); an excerpt from Scenario (1997); Cross Currents (1964); excerpts from Landrover (1972) and Trails (1982); and a Minevent. While all had their specific interest, for me it was Septet that gave the greatest pleasure. One of the very early works from Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which I had never seen before, it was fascinating to see choreography that had such an obvious link to the vocabulary and structure of ballet. The dancers used the upper body differently (with a bit more fluidity perhaps), and arms were more curved than is apparent in later works, with beautifully rounded fourth positions apparent at various times. I was also surprised to see one of the male dancers execute (very nicely I might add) a manѐge of turns and jumps. Quite balletic really.
While many of the dancers could be singled out for the particular qualities they exhibited, I found Melissa Toogood’s dancing exceptional. She appeared in several of the works and showed a great command of those features that characterise Cunningham technique, in particular a wonderful awareness of the space the body occupies when it moves (or takes a pose). When she faces front everything faces front, exactly. When she tilts her head to the side it goes exactly to the side, and so on. This exactness was missing from the young dancers from the New World School of the Arts who performed the Minevent that closed the program. While the enthusiasm was all there, in the end, without the exactness we saw from Toogood (and the other older, more experienced dancers), the Minevent looked a little messy to me. More rehearsal/class time needed?
Also on show at the 92Y was an exhibition of photographs, Merce Cunningham: Passing Time 1967-2011, Photos by James Klosty and Stephanie Berger. Klosty’s images date to the 1960s and 1970s and have long been seen as the standard go-to shots for that early era of Cunningham’s work. The exhibition included many of his classic shots, including portraits of Cunningham’s collaborators of the time such as, John Cage, David Tudor, Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns and others. Stephanie Berger’s images are quite different and their great strength is that they show clearly the nature of Cunningham vocabulary: the tilt of bodies, the strong sense of direction and spatial awareness, the extended limbs, the typical leaps and poses, and much more. Next to Berger’s shots, Klosty’s images have a kind of mystery and an emotive quality. Berger, on the other hand, gives us a fresh and exciting look at Cunningham’s work, and her images have their own emotional appeal. The work of both photographers benefits from this joint display.
Both images used in this post are from Merce Cunningham: Passing Time 1967-2011, Photos by James Klosty and Stephanie Berger and are used with the kind permission of the photographer.
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.
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
The Australian Ballet recently announced that corps de ballet dancer Mason Lovegrove (pictured above) had received the Walter Bourke Award. The prize, which was established in 2005, is named for former Australian Ballet dancer Walter Bourke, and is not awarded annually but on merit. It is to be used specifically to fund a dancer’s professional development on the world stage. Lovegrove plans to use his award to spend time with Houston Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Royal Swedish Ballet, the Royal Ballet, English National Ballet and Berlin’s Staatsballett. Meet Mason Lovegrove via the Australian Ballet’s site.
On the trail of Ruth St Denis
Liz Lea’s documentary On the trail of Ruth St Denis will have its premiere screening in Canberra on 20 July at the National Film and Sound Archive’s Arc Cinema. A sneak preview that I had recently reveals a fascinating glimpse of ‘Ruthie’ as she was known, along with a just-as-fascinating glimpse of Lea and her work. Lea will also perform live as part of the event. She will dance The Cobras, a work created by Ruth St Denis in 1906 and as yet never seen in Australia.
On the trail of Ruth St Denis was filmed in India in Agra, Amritsar, Kanpur, Kolkata, Lucknow, Mumbai, New Delhi and Varanasi, as well as in Scotland, England and Kuwait. Further details of the documentary are at this link, while further details of the NFSA screening are at this link.
Merce Cunningham Contemporary Dance Residency
In August the National Gallery of Australia will open an exhibition, American Masters, with works drawn from the Gallery’s extensive collection of American art from the 1940s to the 1980s. It was a time in the United States when Merce Cunningham, and his collaborators across art forms, were experimenting with new ways of making dance and, as an adjunct to the exhibition, and with support from the Embassy of the United States of America, the Gallery is hosting a two-week residency for three independent contemporary dance artists (yet to be appointed). The program will be led by former Cunningham dancer Jamie Scott who will remount a range of Cunningham solos, duets and trios on these dancers. A number of public performances will be staged at the end of the residency period. More later.
Press for June 2018
‘Exploring rhythms of nature.’ Review of Australian Dance Theatre’s The beginning of nature. The Canberra Times, 18 June 2018, p. 20. Online version.
‘Dancers following their dream.’ Feature on National Capital Ballet School dancers. The Canberra Times, ‘Private Capital’ 25 June 2018, p. 12. Online version
Michelle Potter, 30 June 2018
Featured image: Mason Lovegrove. Photo: Lynette Wills
At this time of the year ‘the best of…’ fills our newspapers and magazines. My top picks for what dance audiences were able to see in the ACT over the year were published in The Canberra Times on 27 December. A link is below in ‘Press for December 2017.’ Dance Australia will publish its annual critics’ survey in the February issue. In that survey I was able to look more widely at dance I had seen across Australia.
In addition, I was lucky enough to see some dance in London and Paris. Having spent a large chunk of research time (some years ago now) examining the Merce Cunningham repertoire, especially from the time when Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were designing for the company, for me it was a highlight of 2017 to see Cunningham’s Walkaround Time performed by the Paris Opera Ballet. And in London I had my first view of Wayne McGregor’s remarkable Woolf Works.
In Australia in 2017 the absolute standout for me was Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Bennelong and that particular work features, in one way or another, in both my Canberra Times and Dance Australia selections. Of visitors to Australia, nothing could come near the Royal Ballet in McGregor’s Woolf Works during the Royal’s visit to Brisbane. At the time I wrote a follow-up review.
Some statistics from this website for 2017
Here are the most-viewed posts for 2017, with a couple of surprises perhaps?
1. Thoughts on Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring. This was an early post dating back to 2009, the year I started this website. I can only imagine that Rite of Spring has been set as course work at an educational institution somewhere and this has resulted in such interest after close to 9 years?
3. Ochres. Bangarra Dance Theatre. This review was posted in 2015 following the restaging of Stephen Page’s seminal work of 1994. It was powerful all those years ago and it is a thrill to see that audiences and readers still want to know about it.
5. RAW. A triple bill from Queensland Ballet. It is only recently that I have had many opportunities to see Queensland Ballet. The company goes from strength to strength and its repertoire is so refreshing. I’m happy to see the 2017 program RAW, which included Liam Scarlett’s moving No Man’s Land, on the top five list.
The top five countries, in order, whose inhabitants logged on during 2017 (with leading cities in those countries in brackets) were Australia (Sydney), the United States (Boston), the United Kingdom (London), New Zealand (Wellington), and France (Paris).
Some activities for early 2018
In January the Royal Academy of Dance is holding a major conference in Brisbane, Unravelling repertoire. Histories, pedagogies and practices. I will be giving the keynote address and there are many interesting papers being given over the three days of the event.
Then, in February I will be giving the inaugural Russell Kerr Foundation lecture in Wellington, New Zealand, and will speak about the career of New Zealand-born designer Kristian Fredrikson. The event will take place on 11 February at 3 pm in the Adam Concert Room at Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Music. The lecture will follow a performance (courtesy of Royal New Zealand Ballet) of Loughlan Prior’s LARK, created for Sir Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald in 2017.
Press for December 2017
‘History’s drama illuminated by dance.’ Review of dance in the ACT during 2017. The Canberra Times, 27 December 2017, p. 22. Online version
And a very happy and successful 2018 to all. May it be filled with dancing.
Recently The Times (London) carried a short article entitled ‘Learn language while you wait for web page to load’. It concerned newly developed apps that ‘test you on vocabulary in idle moments, such as when you are connecting to a network or waiting for an instant message.’* The timing of the article was serendipitous. It came to my attention as I was about to see Paris Opera Ballet’s triple bill, Merce Cunningham and William Forsythe. It seemed like it was an update to what Merce Cunningham was interested to explore with his Walkaround Time (1968),the first work on the POB program. I set off for the theatre with even more anticipation than usual. Cunningham truly was ahead of his time I mused.
The title Walkaround Time, according to Cunningham, comes from computer language. ‘You feed the computer information then you have to wait while it digests.’** Cunningham mentions, however, that it isn’t clear whether it is the computer or the user who is doing the walking around, although for him it is clearly the people!
The dancers of POB handled the Cunningham choreography beautifully—staging was by ex-Cunningham dancers Jennifer Goggans and Meg Harper. I admired especially the dancer who took the role originally danced by Carolyn Brown. Many of the artists appearing in this program (at least at the performance I saw) were not high enough up in the POB hierarchy to warrant a photo in the printed program, so I don’t know who she was. In any case, she was exceptional in her ability to display the balance and stillness this role requires at times, but also showed a beautiful fullness to her dancing when moving was part of the choreography. But all the dancers I saw, with their finely honed bodies and inbuilt understanding of shape and space, brought a wonderful quality to the work, showing as they did the clarity of Cunningham’s deceptively simple choreography.
Jasper Johns’ set, which referred to Marcel Duchamp’s dada-ist Large Glass, and David Behrman’s score …for nearly an hour…, set the work firmly within the Cunningham collaborative tradition, highlighting the independence of the collaborative elements. Watching Walkaround Time was a truly evocative and quite exciting experience.
The first of the two works by William Forsythe that made up the rest of the program was Trio. Ithad some conceptual similarities to the Cunningham piece, even though Forsythe, unlike Cunningham, works within the vocabulary of classical ballet. Trio was a kind of slapstick piece, reminding me a little of something from Cirque du soleil. The dancers came forward pointing out different parts of their body in between dancing and engaging in a kind of rough and tumble physical contact. But, with its stop-start musical accompaniment (a Quartet by Beethoven), and with several sections of dancing being executed in silence, the link back to Cunningham was uncanny.
Herman Schmerman, consists of two parts (made at different times in the 1990s)—a pas de cinq followed by a pas de deux. It probably was the work that showed the dancers of Paris Opera Ballet at their balletic best. The pas de cinq, fast-paced and showy, gave them the opportunity to display speed, intricate beaten work and extended limbs. I especially enjoyed the dancing of Chun Wing Lam. He moved brilliantly, using every part of his body. He twisted, turned, bent all ways, moved so smoothly and fluidly, and looked as though he was having the best time. Wonderful to watch.
The pas de deux, danced by Aurélia Bellett and Aurélien Houette, was a little unusual. In its vocabulary, it had Forsythe’s signature elements of extended limbs, off-centre poses, startling lifts, and the like, scattered throughout the piece. But the communication between the two dancers was not what one might have expected. They were sometimes off-hand with each other, and sometimes they seemed to be in teasing mode. They were a little cheeky and often amusing in the way they related to each other. A bit like life really.
Both the pas de cinq and pas de deux had delightful and surprising endings. As the pas de cinq came to an end, all five dancers disappeared behind a low barrier that stretched across the back of the stage. The accompanying lighting, by Tanji Rühl and Forsythe, was gorgeous and was enhanced by the appearance of two large orange/yellow circles of light on the backcloth as the dancers popped their heads up over the barrier. In a similarly surprising and delightful way, towards the end of the pas de deux both the woman and the man added short, yellow, pleated skirts over their black, close-fitting costumes (costume design by Gianni Versace and Forsythe) and continued the dance with skirts swinging jauntily.
Merce Cunningham and William Forsythe was an inspired program. It was through the vision of Benjamin Millepied, now no longer dance director of POB, that these three works entered the repertoire. Together they made up a program that clearly showed what dance can accomplish in the hands of two exceptional intellects and two inquiring choreographic minds.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. [UPDATE: Unfortunately this app was never updated and is no longer available.]
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.
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.
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.
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.