Merce Cunningham Dance Company: The Legacy Tour
The Brooklyn Academy of Music
Brooklyn, New York
December 7, 2011
By Michael Popkin
Copyright ©2011 by Michael Popkin
Cunningham’s “Roaratorio,” based on John Cage’s “Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegan’s Wake,” took Joyce’s nearly unintelligible and completely unrestrained prose and turned it into lucidly beautiful, orderly and restrained theater. Cage, reciting the 2,500 (or so) place names in Joyce’s novel over a sound track of roaring of water, street sounds, babbling voices and background noises all shot through with the faint melody of a fiddle playing a Celtic reel, first made Joyce’s words audible. Cunningham made them flesh.
The stage space was permeable with the wings, left open to reveal rigging, scaffolding, and wires hanging in elegant loops underneath the flies. Stools, often with bits of colored fabric on them, were used as props and the cast was divided loosely into three groups according to whether they were visibly watching in the wings, onstage sitting on the stools, or actually dancing. Those in the wings were the most casual, resting between entrances, chatting or massaging feet and calves. But even the active dancers were presented in a relaxed and impromptu manner that had the spontaneous air of a rehearsal.
The costumes were attractive leotards and tee shirts in pale pastels – grey, yellowish or mauve - but everyone added touches of stronger colors (red, purple, orange, green, etc.) in asymmetrical accessories like leg warmers, sweat bands, anklets or other garments that completed their outfits. The clothes streamlined the body’s lines and rendered them lyrical but also carried forward the idea that these were contemporary dancers, spontaneously and informally reacting to steps and music.
The score’s cacophony of sound ebbed and flowed, but was always unified by the background Gaelic reel. Cunningham styled a parallel version of a jig to pull his composition together. The dancers stamped or hopped on a single leg, springing repeatedly into and out of the step. Demonstrated in the beginning by individuals and small groups of performers, soon the others joined in, and the recurring high points of the piece had the entire cast doing it in infectiously rhythmic group variations: Cunningham’s equivalent of the national dances in more traditional dance theater. The group dances alternated with solos and small ensembles in Cunningham’s more typical style – weighty distortions of the dancers’ basic postures, conscious and obvious realignments of the spine or of the dancers’ balances.
In one inspired tableau, the entire cast was on stage in a circle, men alternating with women and everyone holding hands. As all the performers did a straightforward version of the Celtic dance described above, the circle turned but would stop every so often to throw off a couple downstage front (whoever happened to be there when the wheel stopped turning) and those dancers would then perform a Cunningham duet. It was like the wheel of fortune on a game show stopping at their number for a dance. When each duet finished, the circle turned again. Another climax, but this to a diminuendo in the score, had three or so couples out front, the women leaning into one leg balances while restrained by their partners, and Jamie Scott standing alone in the rear, slightly lifting and retracting her arms to the music, a hieroglyph in an unknown but meaningful language.
Another unforgettable sequence towards the conclusion had Scott first arranging colored cloths on the stools before the rest of the cast filed in by twos to dance the ghost of a tango. But this time you were acutely aware that this was the company’s last visit to BAM, that you probably would never see this transcendentally beautiful masterpiece danced again, and that it was like a tango at a very quiet requiem.
Such moments of nostalgia, all the same, did not strongly color the evening’s mood, which instead remained celebratory. The point of opening the wings and deformalizing the entrances and exits, of dressing the dancers in practice clothes, of making the mise-en-scène like a rehearsal, was to present the performers as dancers, the dances as such, and to let the native power of both of them loose without anything mediating between them and the audience.
It worked. The dancers and Cunningham’s response to the music had forged a link: this score, these steps, this stage in downtown Brooklyn, these beautiful people onstage in these costumes, the rainy night outside, and soon the audience on the subway platforms heading home - aware that they’d just seen nearly an act of god and yet something entirely and routinely human. That’s Merce.
Photos of Merce Cunningham Dance Company in "Roaratorio" by Julieta Cervantes:
Left Below: Dylan Crossman and Company
Right Below: Melissa Toogood, Krista Nelson and Silas Riener
Left Below: Jamie Scott and Robert Swinston
Bottom: Jamie Scott and Company