Friday, March 26, 2010

Merce Cunningham

Berkeley, March 26—
Do not ask the following to be a true account of the facts concerning tonight's performance of Nearly Ninety, by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, at Zellerbach Hall, in Berkeley.

[Next day: well, actually, it doesn't seem that inaccurate at all.)

It begins on a bare stage, black back wall, loud electronic drone, then the octave, then a fifth, repeated, repeated. Dancers enter as they do in Merce Cunningham's choreography, purposefully, simply, with strength, mostly by ones. Skin tights, painted in whites and blacks. Strong graceful dancers.

Ninety minutes of solos, duets, trios, double duets, quartets, quintets, octets. Absolutely no "expression," "narrative," "meaning." Motion and stillness. Repeated gestures, steps, "routines": the skipping onto the scene, occasional back-kicks with one foot. The one-foot poise, arms extended, slowly turning. The crawls. The jumps.

Now and then, with great eloquence, two or three seated figures, looking at one another or not.

The backdrop surprisingly rising a foot to display a strip of bright orange light at the floor, side to side. Or rising, slowly or not; the light teal, or grey, or orange, or straw-gold-yellow. Or going black again.

Toward the end, recurring, a horizontal stripe, at the center a much brighter almost-square, on either side the stripe tending away in a dimmer light. I thought of Redon: this optical device was the eye of a god, or perhaps it was Merce watching his creation from beyond.

The choreography always absorbing, graceful, strong, accurate, true. Now and then a grouping recalls a passage in a Franz Kline painting, or a soloist suddenly freezes in an attitude recalling a detail in a Tanguy painting. Merce's work is so intelligent, so informed, so generous, so non-manipulative, that one's free, or rather almost impelled, to read in whatever experiences of one's own come first to mind — as long as there's no one-dimensional emotion, or expression, or narrative.

I watch this Nearly Ninety, and think of the previous big piece of his, Oceans. Same huge cosmic scale, again peopled, teeming, with detail and life. Oceans was perhaps meant to suggest the life-organisms that began in those teeming seas, then evolved to crawl out onto the mud, the sands, into the forests, into the air.

Nearly Ninety, then, suggests the Cosmos; the life organisms moving, skipping, quietly turning, hastily rushing through it range from the Brownian motion of atoms to the insanely wheeling galaxies of the Cosmos. Merce was nearly ninety years old when he made it; it runs nearly ninety minutes long. It made me think of B**th*v*n's greatest last pieces, the Bagatelles Op. 126. It is sad he's gone [Cunningham I mean], but it is right; the work is here. Irving Kolodin, I think it was, in writing of the Bonn Symphonist, said the artist's role is to experience more intensely than we can, and express that experience more tellingly than we can, for our benefit. Merce Cunningham was a towering master, doing exactly that.

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