Roaratorio, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, LA

Written by:
Joanna G. Harris
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Merce Cunningham Dance Company Legacy Tour

Mikhail Baryshnikov (foreground) and Merce Cunningham during
their collaboration in Cunningham’s “Occasion Piece (1999).” Baryshnikov performed
“Occasion Piece2” with the Cunningham company at a special event
at Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles on June 7 (see review below).
Photos by Robert Whitman

Merce Cunningham Dance Company Legacy Tour
“Roaratorio, An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake” (1983)
Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles
June 4-6, 2010

Many years ago, in London, I had the privilege of witnessing a performance of”Roaratorio” in the Royal Albert Hall. John Cage read, Irish bagpipers piped, and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company danced jigs and reels in the round. It was a lively event, one worth seeing over and over again for the joy, energy and fun it brings.

In Los Angeles, the sound, with Cage reading the Joyce text, the pipers, the multi-tracked play of voices, was played through loudspeakers in surround sound. It stirred memories of the original, but was less effective in creating the “Irish Circus” so stated in the title. The dance, set on a white stage floor in the huge amphitheater of Walt Disney Music Hall, could not possibly create the hurly-burly of dance in the round. All but one of the performers, now director Robert Swinston, had not danced the original, which was actually premiered in Roubaix, France at the Festival de Lille, 1983. This 2010 version was restaged by Patricia Lent, assisted by Swinston.

Yet, “Roaratorio” is one of Merce’s more charming, playful, humorous works. The fifteen dancers appear on stage carrying stools, so they can sit, watch each other and change costume pieces that are draped on the stools. As if at a pub, a country fair, or on a dance competition festival, duets, trios and foursomes execute long-remembered heel-toe polka and jig steps, waltzes and two-step patterns.

But these are no ordinary dancers! Virtuoso jumps center stage are executed by several men: Dylan Crossman, Daniel Madoff and Silas Riener, and Rashaun Mitchell round robin center stage and jump with their torsos twisted off center. Jennifer Goggans and Andrea Weber perform adagio off-balance solos. There is a continual melee of groups forming and reforming, lifts and falls that delight the eye and amaze muscle memory. The dancers sometimes leave the stage and watch the activities from off-stage seats. It is a community festival, and all the dancers are highly competent, disciplined and effective as performers.

Robert Swinston, who has inherited the task of supervising the choreography Cunningham left to the company, dances his solo. Swinston has the uncanny ability to bend, fold and gesture, capturing Merce’s mannerisms and his ability to bring focus to each movement. Swinston also joined the full proceedings by partnering and joining the group.

Mark Lancaster designed the décor and lighting — a white oblong floor against which the dancers appear in primary-color shirts and tights, highlighted with patches, that give a sense of carnival outfits. Although the light bouncing against the floor often gave fascinating shadows, it detracted from a sense of close connectedness and was hard on the viewers (and the dancers) eyes.

In a post-performance Q&A, some audience members complained about the “music.” My well-trained post-modern daughter said under her breath, “They knew this was a Cage-Cunningham piece. Why buy a ticket and then complain?”

Roaratorio remains a great celebration of these two 20th-century artists.

Occasion Piece2

Choreography by Merce Cunningham
Staged by Robert Swinston
Guest Artist: Mikhail Baryshnikov

“With Merce,” a film by Charles Atlas
Red Cat Theater: Walt Disney Concert Hall
Los Angeles
June 7, 2010

A spectacular event followed the day after the three performances of “Roaratorio” in Los Angeles. As a benefit for the Cunningham Dance Foundation and the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT), the Cunningham company performed “Occasion Piece2.” It had been given recently on a similar occasion in New York City. Cunningham had made some of the dance material for Mikhail Baryshnikov when they collaborated late in Cunningham’s career.

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company amplified the solos performed by Baryshnikov with material from events, excerpts from the repertory. I recognized with great pleasure the games from “Signals” (1970) and a superb duet from “Interscape,” performed by Melissa Toogood and Brandon Collwes. Swinston was able to blend the various duets and ensemble moments to make an outstanding frame for the solos. Baryshnikov took the stage, barefoot, and boldly executed movement in Cunningham style; locomotor patterns, stretched arm gestures, small jumps and turns. He maintained brilliant focus throughout but did not accomplish the audience contact so well maintained by the company members. He is one and they are many. All in all, “Occasion Piece2” was a great success and deserved the standing ovation it received.

Charles Atlas, filmmaker, videographer, designer and general master of dance images, had been with MCDC for long periods of time, broken by a period when he went off to other projects. “With Merce” is a collage of many clips from his work; some from an early video “Blue Studio” and some, to my memory, from the PBS series, “American Masters.” Atlas also compiled rehearsal shots, studio material and occasions when Merce improvised holding the barre and in conversation, even singing in Russian.

It was a very special evening of socialization with the supporting Los Angeles crowd, visitors from across the U.S. and Australia and an effective and memorable fund-raising tribute. Hopefully it will add to the support necessary to keep the company’s legacy tour around the world through its planned completion in 2011.

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