Merce Cunningham Legacy Tour, Berkeley

Written by:
Joanna G. Harris
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Company members in a scene from Merce Cunningham’s “Sounddance”
Photo courtesy of Merce Cunningham Dance Company

Genius and Joy: The Legacy Tour

Merce Cunningham Dance Company
Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall
Berkeley, Calif.
March 3-5, 2011
(See video clip below.)

It is hard to believe that dancing and choreography so inventive and so beautifully executed will disappear at the end of this year, 2011. Yet it is said that the great choreographer Merce Cunningham wished that to be so. The current company, who brought us “Pond Way” (1998), “Antic Meet” (1958) and “Sounddance” (1975) on March 3 and 4 and the amazing “Roaratorio” (1983) on March 5, is the last group of dancers that Cunningham trained. Perhaps he feared that the elegance, exactitude and ensemble they exhibit could not be reproduced by later generations.

Many years ago, the dance writer Edwin Denby, describing Cunningham’s early solos, predicted that he would be “a great lyric dancer.” That lyricism is certainly manifest in “Pond Way,” a slow, quiet nature study that celebrates the choreographer’s ability to move dancers in small groups so that the audience can never predict the patterns. The adagio quality is punctuated with “froglike” jumps and extended torso and arm gestures, which evoke windblown plants. All the images are reinforced by the white flowing costumes by Suzanne Gallo that seem to shimmer like water itself. Brandon Collwes and Andrea Weber brought great distinction to their solos. The musical setting was Brian Eno‘s “New Ikebukkuro (for 3 CD Players).” The decor by artist Roy Lichtenstein, “Landscape With a Boat,” completed the transcendent scene. Lighting was by David Covey.

Antic Meet” took us in an entirely different direction, to Cunningham’s vaudeville days and his comic ability. It is said that this early piece presents the history of his involvement in the early modern dance, his own adventures as a performer and a general satire on the Martha Graham Dance Company, with whom he had his first professional appearances. On March 3, Rashaun Mitchell took the Cunningham part, delighting us with a foray into tap dancing, wooing the taciturn ballerina (who appeared behind a moving door) and struggling with a five-armed sweater (like the wool jersey costumes of early Graham) while four dancers, dressed in Robert Rauschenberg parachutes, summoned the chorus. (Daniel Madoff took the role on March 4.) For those who lived through the emotionally intense, dramatic modern dance, “Antic Meet” relieves any anxiety that it need be taken seriously. In addition to Mitchell, the dancers, whose acting was superb, were Emma Desjardins, Marcie Munnerlyn, Silas Riener, Jamie Scott and Andrea Weber.

Sounddance,” a word taken from James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake is a kind of circus, but with a manic energy. The upstage is draped with a gold curtain (décor and costumes by Mark Lancaster) that has a center opening. Directed by Robert Swinston, who acts like a ringmaster, the dancers enter and form and reform groups, moving with bouncy steps and wild arm gestures. One group flings their arms and heads as if they may be in a giant snake pit while other groups suddenly lift women straight up in the air so they lie flat. Perhaps they serve as offerings to some external force. As Swinston moves through the groups, each dancer returns through the curtain, disappearing and leaving the excitement behind. “Sounddance” is an audience favorite. The music, “Toneburst,” was written by David Tudor in 1975. It, as well as the other scores, were masterfully played by Takehisa Kosugi and his musicians: John King, Christian Wolff, Tom Danby and Jesse Stiles.

The joy of “Roaratorio” is produced by the brilliant footwork recalling Irish step dancing, fast moving patterns, and company ensemble. The Irish often refer to social gatherings with music and dance as “ceilidh.” “Roaratorio” is certainly that. The piece is performed to an amazing score, combining Irish bagpipe music, the sounds of children and dogs, and John Cage reading through “Finnegans Wake.” The subtitle of the work is “An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake.” I was fortunate to see it live at the Royal Albert Hall, London in 1983. What a lark! The dancers bring on barstools, sit observing one another and take turns dancing with jigs and reels, unlike any step dancer can do. Dancer Dylan Crossman was like a green grasshopper, moving so fast and with such detailed footwork as to be a magic creature. The hourlong dance was over much too soon. The dancers collected the various costume pieces used throughout, lifted their barstools and left. The Berkeley audience congratulated the company with multiple curtain calls and standing ovations.

“Roaratorio” was restaged by Patricia Lent with the assistance of Swinston in 2010. Swinston, who is listed as director of choreography, also restaged “Pond Way,” “Antic Meet” and “Sounddance.” He is a remarkable dancer who worked with Cunningham for more than 30 years, joining MCDC in 1980. Swinston is hoping to continue performances with a small repertory group after the company disbands officially on New Year’s Eve, 2011.

Other company members besides those already mentioned are Jennifer Goggans, John Hinrichs, Daniel Madoff, Krista Nelson and Melissa Toogood.

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