Merce Cunningham Dance Company at MASS MoCA
We are re-posting material relating to Merce Cunningham upon the occasion of his death, July 26, 2009: this review and a reminiscence of Merce Cunningham that originally were published on NewBerkshire.com in 2000.
October 28, 2000 performance reviewed by Connell McGrath
The Merce Cunningham Dance Company came to MASS MoCA to perform Summerspace (from 1958), and his most recent work, Biped. Cunningham is one of the pioneers of contemporary dance, beginning his career as a dancer in the Martha Graham Dance Company in the 1940s and forming his own company in 1953. 2014 Jacob’s Pillow schedule, Contact info. and links
The evening was co-sponsored by Jacob’s Pillow and had the feel of an important artistic and historical event. Biped is a great piece of choreography and artistry, and it was particularly meaningful to see it at MASS MoCA while Cunningham is still active in the direction of his troupe. He collaborated with multimedia artists Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar who created the computer graphics for Biped while in residence at MoCA. Collaboration was a significant theme of the evening; MoCA is becoming known for such meetings of various fields of contemporary art and artists.
For Biped, the stage was defined by a transparent screen covering the front of the stage on which computer images were projected, standard black curtains at the sides and a combination of curtain and darkness at the back.
This confining of the stage by the screen in front and darkness at the back made a box of the performance space, a clearly defined arena of performance. Costumes were made of a dark, metallic material that read well behind the screen. Lighting was predominantly white and divided the stage into four quadrants. It was effective, evocative and somewhat moody.
Music was by Gavin Bryars, and performed by David Arrowsmith, Loren Kiyoshi Dempster and Takehisa Kosugi on a variety of instruments, some prerecorded. One striking aspect of the sound score for Biped was the sound of dice being rubbed together and rolled, recalling the use of chance in this piece and as a central force of creation in Cunningham’s work.
The cast for Biped was quite extensive, with fourteen dancers in all, often performing in groups of three or four with men in one group and women in another. A few times during the piece, the dancers paired into male/female partners and danced similar, slightly off sync duets that were lovely and technically brilliant. One aspect of the dancing itself was that no one dancer had a starring role; Biped is an ensemble piece from beginning to end, and it was the movements of the whole troupe that defined its brilliance.
Computer manipulated images of dancing recorded with motion-capture sensors attached to dancers’ bodies are projected on the screen in front of the dancers on stage. These images were used sparingly, and for the most part did not upstage the live dance, but at times the images were dense enough and striking enough to take the audience’s main focus. After some practice, it became possible to watch both at once, but only with effort.
One effect of this use of technology combined with the full troupe on stage was to give the piece a busy-ness and a fullness that is no doubt intentional. In this way, the piece may reflect our current condition, living in a time when relaxation and “down-time” is rare, most landscapes are full of people, and so many different events-many of them computer-generated-vie for our attention. One question that came to me as I watched this dance was “What’s more important, the people or the recorded images of people?”
One of the most effective aspects of the staging is the dancers’ use of the darkness at the back of the stage. They enter and exit from the back, through darkness, and seem to appear and disappear out of thin air. At points in the performance, dancers are positioned in half darkness at the back, holding statuesque poses. This use of entering and exiting through darkness gives Biped an existential quality, with dancers there then not there, or an empty stage suddenly populated with living, dancing beings.
The piece ends with a stage full of dancers, slowly winding down their movements, and stopping by ones and twos. As the curtain falls, only a few dancers are still moving while the rest hold their final poses. Despite sadness in this ending, and the weighty aspect of the ideas evoked by the piece as a whole, Merce Cunningham himself is obviously a lover of life and he creates his dances with a light heart.
Merce Cunningham’s pre-preformance discussion on his career and Summerspace.
On the Thursday prior to the MASS MoCA performance, Merce Cunningham and his archivist, David Vaughan, gave a talk in which they discussed his various roles in the creation of Biped in detail and gave some brief history of Summerspace.
A few aspects of what Cunningham had to say in this talk merit repeating. He made it clear that he knew little about the technology used in the making of Biped, and that he has always been most interested in working at the edge of the new and the unknown. This requires that he give over control of many aspects of his creations to other artists, and this he does with apparent willingness and as a matter of course.
He spoke of chance operations, and revealed that throughout his work from Summerspace in 1958 to Biped in 1999, he has used chance to determine parts of the structure and sequencing in his pieces. Here again is a relinquishing of authority over his work to other forces. Finally, he talked about the collaborative process in deciding how to compose the technological part of Biped. In his discussions with Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser about the computer art and décor for Biped, they requested that certain sequences be kept together for technical reasons, to which Cunningham readily agreed.
The rest of the sequencing was decided by chance operations such as coin toss or roll of dice. This flexibility and humility in his approach to collaboration shows a trust in the process of artistic creation, in chance and in his fellow artists that no doubt informs his work and contributes to its greatness.
Summerspace is an archival piece, and was the first piece in which Cunningham used chance operations in the arrangement of his dance phrases. Each aspect of the piece conspired to evoke summer: Feldman’s music had a light, arrhythmic, melodic sound like occasional bird calls, and the sound of dancers’ footfalls added a syncopation that music lacked. Rauschenberg’s stage-wide backdrop was painted in bright colors, as were his costumes (how many dancers ever get to wear a Rauschenberg?). Lighting was bright, fading slightly at certain points to evoke summer evenings, and adding a dreamlike quality to the piece.
Summerspace is danced by six dancers, two male and four female. The dance phrasing was balletic and seemed dated and simplistic by contemporary standards. The dance movements were of the natural world, sometimes to the point of humor, such as when Koji Minato fluttered his hands above his head like a small bird flying. It is a sweet, mysterious, dancerly piece that was groundbreaking in its time. It is the simple work of a young choreographer at the beginning of the dance revolutions of the 1960s and 70s.