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Merce Cunningham at Wolf Trap: Alea jacta est

Merce Cunningham became a nonagenarian in April, but rather than preparing a successor to lead the modern dance company that bears his name, he has announced that it will die with him. In a column about the decision (Why Dances Disappear, July 7) in the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout asserted that Cunningham's plan, to establish a trust to preserve his choreographies rather than having the company carry them on, will fail because it relies on the imprecise medium of choreographic notation. However, for many years, Cunningham has created his complex choreography with the aid of a computer program: combined with video recordings, one could certainly recreate what Cunningham told his dancers to do. The question is, will anyone other than scholars of dance really want to?

available at Amazon
Split Sides, Merce Cunningham Dance Company

(released on June 30, 2009)
Microcinema MC-980
Given that the company's visit to Wolf Trap on Tuesday night, with the state of Cunningham's health and mental acuity, may have been its last in the area, the Filene Center was certainly nowhere near its capacity, with many empty seats in the auditorium and lots of open lawn space. The evening opened with Split Sides, from 2003, Cunningham's first collaboration with rock musicians, although of the alternative variety. Radiohead and Sigur Rós contributed pieces, now performed with a recording, of equal length. The catch is that the arrangement of performance elements is left to chance, rolls of the dice performed on stage just before curtain by members of the audience. In effect, two choices in five areas (choreography, music, set decoration, costumes, lighting) were performed in the order determined by dice throws. This recalls Cunningham's work with experimental composer John Cage, who used such aleatory techniques in his work, based on his fascination with the I Ching, the ancient Chinese system of philosophy and divination, based on the understanding of apparently random events.

The music was of the ambient variety, Radiohead moving between pulseless repetition and booming bass and Sigur Rós combining synthesized sounds and recorded noises, some of them reportedly produced by "a kind of xylophone made of pointe shoes, connected to contact microphones." The choreography explored the issue of evenness and oddness, with thirteen dancers often grouping into odd numbers, especially seven -- who often seemed like the figures in a Giacometti sculpture, near one another but not really interacting -- then forming into partnered even numbers. The exercise, which can result in thirty-two different combinations, in fact says something about the question of Cunningham's decision about the future of his choreographies. Here, the choreography can work with either musical score, either set, either group of costumes, either lighting scheme. It undermines all sorts of assumptions about the nature of dance. Can something that undid so many classical traditions itself become a classic?

The ballet on the second half was the classic Sounddance, created in 1975 with Cunningham in the main role (the man who appears first and leaves stage last). It is an exciting bit of choreography, an almost constant series of frenetic actions, as the dancers are swept in, writhe about, and are swept back out through the opening at the back of the stage. Cunningham described it once as "a space observed under a microscope." Unfortunately, music technician Stephan Moore, who sat in the pit controlling the playback of the score, David Tudor's Untitled 1975/1994, had the sound system at a dangerous level for the entire performance. Tudor, the pianist who premiered John Cage's notorious 4'33" and many other works, created a noise composition of electronic shrieks and squawks. The impression was of being imprisoned under the rails of a constantly trafficked subway track, with carnivorous pterodactyls swooping down angrily from time to time. This would have worked beautifully with the agitated movements of the dancers, except that one had to keep one's fingers over one's ears the entire time to prevent eardrum damage. Given that we have finally recognized as a country that sonic torture at American terrorist detention centers (the so-called black sites) is immoral and illegal, either the sound level should have been kept at a humane level or protective earplugs should have been issued to all audience members.

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