The Quality of Merce 

Cunningham at 80. Plus, Mark Morris, Paul Taylor and Diavolo Dance Theater

Wednesday, May 5 1999
Photo by Chris CallisMERCE CUNNINGHAM IS ABOUT DISCOVERY. AFTER two fiendishly complex and elegant programs at UCLA's Royce Hall on April 16 and 17, it's clear that the best way to see Cunningham's choreography is probably five nights in a row. His is not easy and comfortable material. It demands work. And yet, just the simple act of looking with a more active eye, a more discerning intelligence, a more engaged heart, leads to surprises.

In Windows, Cunningham manipulates the dancers' arms into irreconcilable warps and curves. The shoulder, upper arm, forearm and wrist bend independently and sometimes in opposite directions. These are impossibly difficult angles, inhuman positions almost, because they defy the known and accepted integrity of the body. Cunningham created all the dances performed at UCLA with the use of a computer program called LifeForms, by manipulating an onscreen Michelin Man­type figure built of wiry circles. With this technology, he can isolate the body into quadrants, work only on the legs, and then lift the leg movements off the screen and teach them to the dancers in his studio; he can then do the same with the torso, then the arms, putting the sequences together like puzzles.

Cunningham has been composing LifeForms-generated dances since before John Cage died in 1992. It's sort of a cold, dehumanizing method, and yet, strangely, the results are profoundly emotional, dances that stop you in your tracks. In the hands of anyone less disciplined, masterful and observant than Cunningham, the work would remain lifeless. But in Windows and the haranguing CRWDSPCR and the glistening Pond Way -- all from UCLA's opening program -- the pieces were full of feeling, actively engaging the mind. How can the dancers do what they are doing? How do they achieve such unity -- where one dancer, resting in a corner on her knees, coexists so solidly with the others, who are flying across the stage in a flock? They are held together by something, but what is that something?

The second night's energy leapt higher still, like a wall of fire -- unforgettable for the terror, the passion and the real, real sorrow it aroused. Rondo, a two-part piece with a score by Cage, was magic. Incredibly, the 15 dancers in the piece know all the parts and only find out the day before which they will dance the next night. The eight dances in the first section and the three duets in the second section are shuffled for each performance. You never know who --- or what --- you are going to get. On April 17, Derry Swan took the solo in the yellow bathing suit; her impulses are some of the most tangibly visible and yet most mysterious among dancers.

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But it was Ground Level Overlay, the final dance, that was so incredibly beautiful I'm at a loss to say why or how. For the score, Stuart Dempster recorded 10 trombone players 14 feet below the earth in a cistern; then, during the performance, he overlaid twangy didgeridoo and conch-shell sounds. Layer upon layer of deep, mouth-blown, resonating sound -- and there onstage, in front of clumps of hanging Spanish moss, dressed in black costumes with touches of black velvet, were the dancers, bathed in a golden light that made their flesh glow.

It was a pilgrimage, a travel piece really; but rather than the sense of different people passing by, it seemed the same people were wandering back in, and not ever settling. Ground Level Overlay ended with all the dancers in pairs, slow-dancing at a ball that felt never-ending, and it came over me with an overwhelming sorrow: What will happen when Merce dies? Nobody will make this work. Nobody else can make this work. How special this is -- how rare and exceptional.

The first performance, April 16, was Cunningham's 80th birthday. He joined his dancers onstage, walking -- as hard as it is for him to walk -- in plain sight, not vainly letting the curtain come down while he composed himself, but showing himself, arthritis and all, a dancer. He took his company members' hands. He had watched, as he does every single performance, with a stopwatch and a note pad, sitting in the downstage right wing, scribbling drawings and notes. This is not to correct the dancers, but to note ideas, capture the sparks that fly from his own pieces. He is addictive.


LIKE CUNNINGHAM, MARK MORRIS ALSO PERFORMS with live musicians, and there is nothing that can substitute for the possibility of conjunction, surprise and electricity between an audience and the dancers when live musicians are present. On April 9 at the Irvine Barclay Theater, the Mark Morris Dance Group performed Rhymes With Silver, with Yo-Yo Ma and four other musicians in the pit, playing a commissioned score created for Morris and Ma by Lou Harrison. What a mind-blowing piece. It was dense and challenging. The tones of cello, violin, viola, piano, gongs and bells glided out in waves, rose, overlapped and vibrated against each other, creating a dark and disturbing "blood red" sound. In his solo with Ma, Morris physically matched the music; his energy seemed to separate, almost geologically. You could imagine ancient Pleistocene layers and move your eye through him to more modern soil. It was like nothing else.

PAUL TAYLOR (WHO I WISH WOULD USE LIVE MUSIC) presented one of his newest works, Piazzolla Caldera, at the Alex Theater on April 25 to inaugurate his company's five-year residency in Glendale, and it is a fabulous work. When the piece opens, it feels like 2 a.m. in a smoke-filled building lit by bare bulbs, where the sweaty dancers have seemingly been at it for hours. Through the rhythm of their actions, Francie Huber, Richard Chen See, Thomas Patrick, Lisa Viola, Patrick Corbin, Silvia Nevjinsky and Andrew Asnes built an exhilarating and convincing drama that contained some of the most eloquent transitions and partnering seen in decades.

AS IF THE LAST THREE COMPANIES WEREN'T enough, L.A.'s own Diavolo Dance Theater supplied yet more faith in dance as a serious human activity, through a program of works by the seemingly inexhaustible choreographer and artistic director Jacques Heim. His abundance of imaginative vigor created the mythical Tête À Claque, where the dancers balanced on freestanding doors of different sizes, as well as the new sea fantasy, Trajectoire. The company of phenomenal dancers, seen on April 10 at El Camino College, seems primed for some sort of national Cirque du Soleil/Stomp/Blue Man Group­ish modern-dance show. Maybe that's where Diavolo is headed. It will be interesting to see if Heim can keep the balance between art and commerce.

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