By Patricia Boccadoro
PARIS, 16 MARCH 2012 Watching the last performance of the
final programme of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Paris in December
was not unlike witnessing the second death of Cunningham himself, one of
the giants of 20th century modern dance, whose first appearance at the
Theatre de la Ville dates back to 1972. It marked the end of an epoch.
Before his death at the age
of 90 two years ago, the avant-garde American choreographer stipulated
that he wished audiences around the world to see his works one more time,
interpreted by the dancers he himself had trained, before the troupe was
permanently disbanded. Subsequently, after this ultimate performance at
the Theatre de la Ville, the dancers would continue to receive a years
salary prior to either joining another company or turning towards
teaching. The senior members of the company plan to promote the Merce
Cunningham Dance Foundation, created to preserve his works.
Beginning at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Colombus, Ohio, the
company visited over forty cities, culminating in Paris with a
cross-section of works created between 1968 and 1999.
Merce Cunningham Dance Company: Biped
Photo: Tony Dougherty
The last piece presented in the French capital was Biped, a
1999 work accompanied by an excellent score composed by Gavin Byars and
with effective, metallic costumes which reflected light designed by
Suzanne Gallo. It incorporated choreography devised on a computer,
Cunningham being the first major choreographer to create sequences on
screen before rehearsing them with his dancers, and with a decor using
spectacular computer-generated imagery. Even the floor was illuminated in
randomly moving squares of light. Lasting forty-five minutes, it is
possibly the most outstanding work of Cunninghams later years and one
which appeals to most audiences. It deservedly received a huge ovation,
considerably more than the naturalistic Rainforest, the second
piece presented which had been acclaimed at its creation in 1968.
Rainforest, with an evocative background score of David
Tudors electronic sound, and with Andy Warhols large, helium-filled
silver pillows bobbing around in the air entertaining the audience, subtly
evokes the flora and fauna around us. It was amusing to see again, but the
innovative impact of such pieces which marked dance over forty years ago
has faded. There were no smiles but just grim faces on the dancers who,
more than ever, seemed pawns in a game of chess.
Merce Cunningham Dance Company: Suite
Photo: Tony Dougherty
Moreover, it followed the opening work, the 1980 Duets, an
uneventful piece which was both lifeless and dispirited in both
choreography and interpretation, a half-hearted game of mirrors despite
being set to a score by John Cage. It was no wonder people would walk out
of Cunninghams creations if pieces were regularly interpreted like this.
The dancers seemed to be warming up, improvising, but lacked both energy
and incentive, burying Cunningham a second time instead of rejoicing in
the fact that he lives on through his work.
Much of Cunninghams work, where artistic decisions were frequently
made by the toss of a coin, was difficult to appreciate. Constantly
inventing, incessantly searching and concerned with balance within
off-balanced movements while ignoring all emotion, musicality or
expressivity, Cunninghams dancers were often seen as mechanical robots,
particularly after he began working on a computer. Music and dance rarely
met until the first night of a performance, and consequently one either
adored or detested his work. It was no secret that choreography for
Cunningham was often the result of chance, the chance in Paris being that
it was with the whole company launching into the phenomenal
Biped, that this "astonishing adventure", to quote
Cunningham himself, came finally to a halt amid loud cheering from an
Merce Cunningham Dance
Title image: Merce Cunningham
Photo: Mark Seliger
Photo courtesy of Merce Cunningham Dance Company
Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor for
Merce Cunningham: 1919 - 2009
Merce Cunningham Dance Company Celebrates Fiftieth
John Cage at 100
here for Patricia Boccadoro's archive of interviews with international
choreographers and dance stars.
here for Patricia Boccadoro's archive of dance reviews of performances by
troupes and companies from all over the world.