“Duets,” “Squaregame,” and “Inventions MinEvent”
Merce Cunningham Dance Company &
Merce Cunningham Repertory Understudy Group
Lincoln Center Festival Merce Fair
Frederick P. Rose Hall
New York, NY
July 16, 2011 (Afternoon session)
by Kathleen O’Connell
copyright © 2011 by Kathleen O’Connell
The Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s Legacy Tour has done more than offer a last look at some of the great choreographer’s notable works before the troupe disbands at year end. It’s also making the case—especially through its revivals—that many of these works can and should be preserved in active repertory somewhere once Cunningham’s own company is gone. Not merely because the works are the products of genius, but because the average dance-goer, and not just adepts, might genuinely enjoy watching them. The three works performed as part of the Lincoln Center Festival’s Merce Fair—“Duets” (1980), “Squaregame” (1976), and “Inventions MinEvent”—weren’t just accessible, they seemed designed to help even a novice dance-goer see what all the fuss is about.
“Duets” is as tidy as can be. Each couple gets its own duet and signature variations on a handful of themes. Each duet is briefly punctuated by the upstage entrance of a second couple reprising one of its own signature moves. Since everybody’s been given a distinctive costume, we can readily discern who’s who. Each duet probes the same choreographic questions: how might one dancer support another in a balance or frame another’s leaps, turns, and traveling steps? How might two dancers cross the stage together or negotiate shared space? To make sure we don’t miss anything, we’re often shown the same maneuver three times in succession.
In the second of the six duets, Andrea Weber, wearing a yellow unitard, stands poised on one leg while Brandon Collwes, wearing a dark blue top and lavender tights, slowly and deliberately opens and closes her like a book. Holding her by a hand and a foot, he folds her torso down along the forward extension of her leg, then pulls her up and back through arabesque into a taut arc. He slips beneath her so that she’s draped across his back, but holding her beautiful, open shape all the while. A few minutes later she leaps onto his back again, wraps her legs around his midsection, and lets her torso sail out into space while he spins her around like a carnival ride.
The duets flash images at us from daily life and other choreography, but without commentary. It’s impossible not to think of “Agon” during the second duet and equally impossible to make anything out of the association. The fourth couple (Jamie Scott and Daniel Madoff) bound across the stage holding hands like Albrecht and Giselle in the village square, but there’s nothing else about their dance that recalls happy or tragic young lovers. It’s a way of getting two people from one side of the stage to the other, make of it what you will. In the sixth duet, Silas Riener spins Marcie Munnerlyn around like a kid playing with a schoolyard merry-go-round. It’s both funny and nothing personal.
There’s nothing in “Duets” to perplex an audience that’s been exposed to the work of any number of contemporary choreographers—to Jiří Kylián or Mauro Bigonzetti—save for its Apollonian chasteness. The paired-off dancers are couples in a formal rather than a narrative sense. Weber and Collwes’ duet has all the visual metaphor it needs to be a psychodrama, but none of the plot machinery. It exhibits neither the erotic charge nor the irony that might impose a dramatic through-line on the steps: their logic is formal rather than emotional.
The company’s performance on Saturday afternoon seemed uncharacteristically muted. Gestures that should have had more éclat—Robert Swinston’s testing the security of Emma Desjardins’ off-kilter balance by successively repositioning his supporting hand up her outstretched arm, for instance—fell flat and the steps looked labored. The tour’s long slog may be taking its toll.
“Squaregame” presents more of a challenge. Its score—an assemblage of electronically manipulated voices, strings, and found sounds by company Music Director Takehisa Kosugi—isn’t the kind of aural assault that David Tudor’s score for the roughly contemporaneous “Sounddance” is, but many will find it off-putting nonetheless. Structurally, the work is neither as simple nor comfortably familiar as is “Duets” and there’s a whole lot to keep track of. Yet there are ample of points of entry, starting with the title.
The work begins with four dancers sitting at the corners of an imaginary square in front of two neat stacks of white duffel bags. They’re dressed in an assortment of practice clothes and athletic wear in shades of gray, black, blue straight out of a locker room. The stage floor has been covered with a large white rectangle bounded by bright green Astroturf. Squaregame. If you haven’t picked up on the clues, you’re not paying attention.
It doesn’t take long to discern the patterns: the dancers either move along the imaginary square’s perimeter or down its diagonals. The women are vertical, the men are on the floor, but they’re all doing variations of the same steps and gestures. Other dancers enter and begin an impenetrable but apparently orderly series of operations with the duffel bags—but then all games seem impenetrable if you don’t know the rules.
“Squaregame” isn’t a dramatized athletic contest and the words in the title aren’t the sum total of work’s organizing principles. They’re hints about for what to look for—patterns, rules, repetition, and the chance-driven rhythms of action and reaction—as the dance progresses through its interlocking series of quartets, trios, duets, solos, and larger ensembles.
The work is full of endearingly loopy detail. Two men pick a woman up and walk her through the arc of a big jeté. Dancers fall to the floor and bounce in place as if they were attached to bungee cords. The performance was full of enthralling passages as well. Four dancers wove a line across the stage, and the layered rhythms of their progress—each was doing something different—were as captivating as any melody. John Hinrichs, in a beautiful performance of the solo that Cunningham created for himself, seemed to re-orient the planes of his body to the four corners of the stage as he worked his way through a series of exacting reconfigurations of his upper body.
You couldn’t ask for a more lucid Cunningham primer than “Inventions MinEvent,” a seamless collage of excerpts from works in the company’s repertory, performed with thrilling commitment and clarity by the Merce Cunningham Repertory Understudy Group. The live accompaniment provided by Fast Forward (percussion) and Jon Gibson (soprano sax and flute) was as close to easy listening as you’re likely to get with Cunningham.
The work has been set on the group’s four dancers, all dressed in plain unitards. One couple is in red and rose (David Rafael Botana and Stacy Martoranais), the other in dark and light gray (Timothy Ward and Cori Kresge). They begin with a simple sequence of steps—hardly more than a plié, a relevé, a lift of the leg, and a little skip forward—that they repeat first in unison, then two–by–two in canon. Because there are only four dancers, and because their costumes make it possible to keep track of who’s doing what, it’s easy to parse the logic of the changes they ring on that opening handful of steps. The simple transfer of weight onto one leg morphs into a gripping series of long-lined and off-kilter balances. The little skip forward replays itself as space-eating leaps and turns. Four is reconfigured into 2+2, then 3+1, then 2, then 1, then 4 again. It was an exhilarating trip through infinite possibility and the highlight of the afternoon.
By contrast, Merce Fair, a day long multidisciplinary celebration of Cunningham’s career held in the Frederick P. Rose Hall complex of studios and performance spaces, seemed designed for those already in-the-know. Otherwise, you needed to cast an I Ching hexagram to chart a course through the program’s 8-by-22 color-coded matrix of dance performances, film screenings, concerts, interactive events, lectures, and panel discussions. “There is no wrong way to experience Merce Fair” the program told us. But if you didn’t choose wisely, you could leave at the end of a long day with little sense of what made Cunningham such singular genius. There was a lot to see and hear, but little to help you put it all into context. You could see Robert Rauschenberg’s drops for “Interscape,” catch a performance of John Cage’s “Song Books,” and watch Cunningham’s “Duets,” but that alone wasn’t going to leave you with much insight into the three artists’ shared aesthetic or why their work was so potent in combination.
There may not have been a wrong way to experience Merce Fair, though to be on the safe side the event’s organizers scheduled the day’s events so that nothing ran concurrently with the main company’s performances of “Duets” and “Squaregame.” But there was a best way: to give the panels, workshops, and film screenings second billing and catch the Repertory Group’s luminous performance of “Inventions MinEvent” first.
copyright © 2011 by Kathleen O’Connell
Photos: Stephanie Berger
Top: Brian Collwes and Andrea Weber in “Duets”
Middle: John Hinrichs and Emma Desjardins in “Squaregame”
Bottom: Marcie Munnerlyn, Brian Collwes, Emma Desjardins, and Daniel Madoff in “Squaregame”