Merce Cunningham Dance Company

Overheard in the audience at a Merce Cunningham Dance Company performance:

“I wish I understood what was going on.”

“Oh, you’re not supposed to be able to.”

Can a look into another person’s eyes, ever be just a look – a movement of the eyeballs, and not a connection? Can an outstretched hand ever be just that, without the connotations of reaching desire? Can a frenzied turn be dissected into a turn apart from its frenziness? If I close my eyes at a dance performance, am I transported to a music concert? If a dance is performed with a different set (or lighting or costumes), is it a different dance? Can movement ever be completely devoid of meaning? Is meaning and intention in a movement, all in my own head?

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company continues to inspire more questions than anything else, as I questioned about everything I knew about art and performance. Cunningham plays on the theme of chance, even picking audience members to throw a die for the second piece, Split Sides, in which an even and odd die throw determined the order of the music, choreography, set, costumes, and lighting. Cunningham manages to take a reductionist view on performance, breaking almost every aspect of dance performance and mixing them together in infinite possibilities. The music for Split Sides was composed by Radiohead and Sigur Ros for each “act” – when there was a sound technical glitch and a very loud noise was heard, many in the audience wondered if it was a part of the show. When so much is up to chance, aren’t wobbles and technical difficulties included in the game of chance and included in a great performance?

The evening opened with MinEvent with Kronos Quartet, made recently this year in 2008. A big highlight was having the Kronos Quartet play live, positioned around the auditorium with one of the violinists sitting uncomfortably close, about 2 feet from where I was sitting. The music was set to John Cage – it must take confidence to play John Cage, to be confident that you’re supposed to be playing at the moment you’re playing. I’m used to being told when to play, I suppose. It’s interesting that for dance choreography that’s so anti-musical, that a great deal is spent is providing the best music possible for a performance. I personally was much happier to have seen the Kronos Quartet than to put my ipod on and experience a performance that way (in eyeSpace, also being performed by Merce Cunningham on tour).

There was a brief post performance discussion, the highlight of which Merce Cunningham himself came out to speak. It wasn’t a big surprise at how intellectually philosophical he is – in speaking of the different aspects of performance that he isolates and rearranges (choreography, sets, music, lighting), he compared it to the fact that in life, we do one thing in the presence of unintentional sounds and backgrounds and lighting. Each aspect of our lives don’t necessarily have to “mean” something or correlate in any way, and he didn’t see how dance couldn’t be the same way. Along this vein, MinEvent could have been played to John Cage’s infamous 4’3″ (in which it’s performed in complete silence in three movements) and it still would have fit. It also amazed me that the dancers explained how they learn choreography in complete silence. As a dancer, it seems so wrong. but equally impressive that the dancers are able to separate different components of performance and to adapt to different stage environments.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company is so unique, it’s impossible to view it with the same standards as I do to other dance performances. I’ve always wanted to see them live, and it was an eye opening and engaging experience.

Normally, the sound of pointe shoes is unintentional accompaniment to dance performances. Here, there is a pointe shoe xylophone in the pit (made by Sigur Ros)

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