Merce Cunningham Dance Company
Eiisenhower Theater
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, D.C.
April 1 & 2, 2006

by Nancy Dalva
copyright 2006, Nancy Dalva

"Okay, shall we begin?" — Merce Cunningham, teaching company class on the stage of the Eisenhower Theater, April 1, 2006

Every two years, in the spring, The Merce Cunningham Dance Company plays the Kennedy Center, a theater where the company, and especially the choreographer, are held in high and affectionate regard. Indeed, among Merce Cunningham's many honors are those bestowed by the Kennedy Center. This is then, his house. And it is, too, our house, because it sits on the Potomac, in the city which belongs to the nation. The Cunningham company plays the world, and has for more than fifty years, but to see them in Washington is always somehow significant, just as to see them in Paris is somehow always magical, and to see them in California is to be drenched, somehow, in sunshine. That is, each city, each theater, each night has its own character, its own correspondences. One cannot escape the political in Washington, and so, although this choreography and this artist are as removed from that scrum as, say, the planet Neptune, there are force fields.

"Hey, Merce," one of the technicians says upon entering the stage area and seeing Cunningham regarding the drapes and swags of Mark Lancaster's gold curtained backdrop for "Sounddance," a marvelous piece of scenery that looks like a dress by the American couturier Charles James. The work, the last on the program tonight and tomorrow, is one of the very greatest of dances not merely of Cunningham's, but ever—it is as iconic as the original "Sacre du Printemps," and shares its convulsive energies, musically and choreographically, though there the resemblance ends. The techie walks up to shake the choreographer's hand. "Good to see you, sir. You just keep coming back." "Hi Merce. Good to see you." "Merce, what do you think of the draping?" It's the same old, same old, and how wonderful that is and how lucky we all are will be seen that evening, when the curtain goes up on a triple bill. In tonight's program, there will be no biography of Cunningham. He will not take a bow, nor will be tomorrow, though he will receive the accolades of his audience—many now grown sweetly grey along with him—during a panel discussion after the first performance, when he will be seated center stage, his dancers, his archivist David Vaughan, the composer Christian Wolff (there to play John Cage's "ASLP" for the opening dance), and several of his dancers beside him.

"Although the dances that come from the past are brought back in the way they were done," Cunningham will say, " We all know these are different people. This to me is not wrong, but the way life is. Certainly the character of 'Sounddance' is what it was, but they are different people and the energies are different—this is one of the things that I like about bringing back pieces, knowing that these people are who they are." So much for nostalgia. (The dance was first performed on March 8, 1975, in Detroit, Michigan, with Cunningham in the central role.) Hello, tonight.

Often in discussions and articles about "Sounddance" Merce Cunningham is quoted as saying that the title of the dance is taken from "Finnegans Wake," a book read and reread by the composer-philosopher John Cage, who was immersed in Joyce ( and so thus was Merce, his near-lifelong partner, immersed). The quotation usually given, "In the beginning was the sounddance," is in fact an elision. Here it is properly:

"the buginning is the woid, in the muddle is the sounddance and thereinofter you're in the unbewised again, vund vulsyvolsy." — James Joyce, "Finnegans Wake"

This happens to describe the dance perfectly. It begins as the curtain goes up on a bare stage, cloaked in black side curtains, with the 10 feet or so of Lancaster's curtained drop pendent on a dark field. There is a sense of a pool of light, and beyond, nothing. Or nothing knowable. The very center of the curtains are cut in strips, which overlap, just as the curtains drape to the floor, shutting out all sense of what lies beyond. We see this for about ten seconds, and then the utterly fabulous percussive soundscore by David Tudor kicks in, and keeps on kicking, with dense patterns of sound that are layered, like flocking on fabric, dense, rich, textured. Out of the center of the backdrop spins a lone figure. Once, it was Merce Cunningham. Now, it is Robert Swinston, the assistant to the choreographer and the company's senior member, and now just a year older than Cunningham was when he first danced the same part. It is a significant role, and a rare one, for this dancer is a master of ceremonies. You see this role, more tangentially, in other Cunningham pieces—for instance, there is such a part in "Points in Space," originally danced by Chris Komar; and there are two such introductory incantations in "Ocean," first danced by Foofwa d'Immobilite and Jenifer Weaver, but there the dancer is more an introducer, a kind of invocator of the muse, not a presiding genius, and a presiding genie.

That genie is the choreographer, and this is, among other things, a dance about beginning a dance company; and beginning a dance. It is also a dance that functions, as do so many of Cunningham's nature studies, on a microscopic and a macrocosmic level. Birth of the universe? Creation of heaven and then the peopling of the earth? Cells dividing and redividing" The stage teems with life, life, life. "Sounddance" is a creation myth, for out from behind the curtain will next tumble nine more people, who will mate, conjoin, polymorphously generate life in the guise of more dancing, who will tilt against the air like salmon swimming upstream, with Swinston—in gestures I don't recall seeing in any other Cunningham work–placing the dancers, shepherding them, and manipulating one of the women as if she were a doll. His is a position of power, and at a price; all the energy on the stage spills out from him. He is the center, and the centrifugal force is fantastically powerful.

Here, before our eyes and in our ears, is one of those great moments when two arts—conceived separately and only converging in the theater, combine with a third, also made apart, as if they were made for each other. The first two are of course the costumes (grey tights, gold tops) and decor, the second the music. The dance wears and appears in the decor, and transpires to the score, with which it has in common duration of time. And in this case, intensity. There isn't another Cunningham dance with a greater unity of impression than this one. (I can think of some to rival it, but none more felicitous and more exponential, so that the sum of the parts is far greater than their individual value.)

This revival has been staged by Meg Harper and Robert Swinston, and it is really perfect, just as wonderful as the earlier revival by the late Chris Komar, who brought the work surging back to life as his own was being wound down by AIDS. The dancers are one and all wonderful as well, caught up in their constant complex lifts, spins, shifts, re-groupings, convulsive couplings and triplings, all fast. New orbits, new cells, and withal, some correspondences from the outer choreographic universe, the greater work of Merce Cunningham. For, as with any other great artist, you can look at his works separately, or as one great body. Here are elements known from other pieces—some earlier, some later. Small points of technical expression, like a flexed foot, as in starting a jig. (This is Joycean, after all.) And perhaps most central, that circle Cunningham sets forth, so like the circling dancers of Matisse. This figure occurs again and again in the work. Here, there is an inner circle, and surrounding it, a more loosely held one–as if the outer dancers are a chain link fence containing the inner performers. And in the middle of that, Swinston—or once, Cunningham—caught up in the vortex, with a partner.

As are we caught up, in the sound, in the dance. At the end, the applause roars forth, and people surge to their feet, for "Sounddance" is an efficient and exciting energy transfer device. (It fills you up, and you send it back.) They applaud the dancers, the musicians, and of course, they applaud the choreographer. He remains in the wings—withdrawn, you might say, behind the curtain, where he has been sitting in his customary spot, timing the dance and watching it with his mild yet eagle eye. The company takes two, brief curtain calls, and the lights come up while the audience is still in tumult.. "Where's Merce?" someone asked?

Merce is right there. He is in the dance, he is in the dancers, he is in the dancing. And he is with us, in the same space, the same time. We have watched his work together. He with stopwatch; we with starthearts. As first made, the dance ran 17 minutes; in Washington, in cherry blossom time, it ran a smidge longer, but to the second the same both nights. "Rhythm," says Cunningham, "is time cut up." Never was a muddle so clear.

Volume 4, No. 13
April 3, 2006

copyright ©2006 Nancy Dalva



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