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Merce Cunningham: They Just Might Be Angels

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company

The Black Mountain College Years

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company was founded in 1953 by the choreographer and his partner, the composer John Cage, at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Sixteen years later, the director of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Harvey Lichtenstein, who had fallen in love with Cunningham’s work when he studied with Cunningham at Black Mountain as an undergraduate, was in a position to offer several worthy and financially struggling dance companies a home base in New York City at BAM, which included an annual two-week performance season and offices for the companies’ administration. Merce Cunningham’s young dance company was the first on his list.

Fully Awake: Black Mountain College

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company in New York City

Just this year, The Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s showered its New York audience with a splendid surprise at the City Center when the company revived one of Mr. Cunningham’s very early pieces, the 1953 Septet. Set to music by Erik Satie, the work has not been performed since 1964; the performance had the effect of a virtual premiere and was received as such. Septet proved to be as delightful as it was revealing, historically. It is not a major work, but it has a clarity of movement that matches the clarity of sound so important to Satie. Mr. Cunningham has since created more complex and sophisticated pieces. Never, however, has he been so pure. Septet is indeed a rarity in the Cunningham canon of works. It will surprise a great many people. It is reportedly the last piece Mr. Cunningham choreographed along traditional lines before he embarked upon the regular use of chance procedures as a compositional device. It is also set to ”real” music rather than the controversial sound scores now common in the Cunningham dance troupe.

Merce Cunningham’s 1953 Septet

This happy example of seemingly chance operations in everyday life was deceptive, however. Higher education has been an important patron of modern dance since the end of World War II. This was particularly the case for the Cunningham company, where acumen and ideas, including chance operations, were the mechanisms driving the choreography, the music, the designs, and the lighting. Higher education provided some of the money, and many of the thoughtful audiences that gave Cunningham and his colleagues cordial auspices for their generally abstract, visually complex, and athletically demanding work, also supplied the company with many of its dancers.

For much of time during the 1950s and 1960s, the financial survival of Cunningham and his company was dependent to a remarkable degree on the performances, teaching jobs, and residencies that they were able to arrange at American colleges. In 1958, while in residence at The Connecticut College School of Dance, Cunningham was afforded the time and refreshing occasion to choreograph one of his landmark dances, Summerspace. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Cunningham was the first dancer appointed to its Artist-in-Residence Program. At the University of California at Berkeley and Los Angeles, the University of Florida, and many other institutions, enlightened faculty members and administrators recognized what federal appointees, prominent critics, and backbiting colleagues could or would not: that the choreography of Merce Cunningham was both pristinely avant-garde in their compositional procedures and aesthetic premises, and truly beautiful and exciting to contemplate in live performance by him and his outstanding dancers. Cunningham recently spent time in residency at Stanford University, playing the role of muse for a university-wide experience in the performance art of choreography. The interdisciplinary experience at Stanford, and some of Cunningham’s thoughts about it, were recorded:

Merce Cunningham at Stanford University

Although the work of Merce Cunningham and John Cage is revered today, for the most part their native country was the last to acknowledge their value as artists. For all of the 1950s and nearly all of the 1960s, the company’s applications for financial support from the U.S. State Department to make international tours were soundly rejected, despite the fact that other modern-dance companies, like Martha Graham’s and Alvin Ailey’s, were generously supported. For nearly three decades of Cunningham’s career, professional opportunities for his work in America were rare indeed. Critics outside of New York City frequently appreciated, even enjoyed, Cunningham’s magnificent dancers and disciplined, imaginative, and deeply personal choreography. They detached their evaluations of him from those of the inveterantly (and sometimes aggressively) destabilizing sound scores by John Cage, David Tudor, and their associates.

However, within New York City, Cunningham and Cage, partners in art and life, were consistently and humiliatingly ignored by John Martin, the dance critic at The New York Times, and they were also subject to jealous interference by fans and protectors of prominent modern-dance choreographers from the previous generation, most notably the former Martha Graham dancer Martha Hill, the visionary pedagogue at Bennington, Connecticut Colleges and The Juilliard School. And so it was especially touching to hear, after all the years of mistreatment in New York, that Cunningham said this year that of all the places he has toured, New York City is his favorite. He added, “The first step I put here years ago, I thought, ‘This is home.'” The occasion was the opening of an exhibition at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, at Lincoln Center. Invention: Merce Cunningham & Collaborators documented his company’s history through manuscripts, films, costumes, sets, photographs, and scores.

Cunningham Becomes a Legend

These days, Cunningham enjoys so many written accounts in a variety of media that it is possible for a university to teach a graduate course on him. Since its founding, the Cunningham company has frequently been filmed and televised in rehearsal and performance. Eventually, Cunningham also worked with the filmmakers Charles Atlas and Elliot Caplan to make his own films of dances arranged for the camera. Excellent documentaries, beginning with Caplan’s monumental Cage/Cunningham (1991), are also commercially available. And, over the years, a little library has accrued of writings by and about Cunningham, Cage, and such collaborators as the painter Robert Rauschenberg (an old Black Mountain College colleague) who toured with the company in the early 1960s in order to redesign its settings, costumes, and lighting at each performance and who once described the Cunningham company as the biggest canvas that he had ever worked upon.

Books about Cunningham have been published in several Romance and Nordic languages, reflecting his company’s dazzling success with audiences in Europe. Still, the majority of his commentators have come from Britain and America, and English speakers who would like to read about the world of this complex, peerlessly determined, and profoundly focused choreographer and virtuoso dancer have a wealth of material from which to choose. They might begin with the superb and extensive entry on him by the dance critic, historian, and longtime Cunningham company archivist David Vaughan in the International Encyclopedia of Dance (Oxford University Press, 1998), ideal reading for both undergraduates and new fans, regardless of whether they have dance backgrounds.

Cunningham has published his own writing and conversation. Among his most admired personal writings is Story: Tale of a Dance and a Tour, excerpts from his journal concerning the company’s landmark, yearlong world tour in 1964, published in Dance Ink in 1995 and reprinted in Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years. Its revelations include the fact that he was suffering at the time from an unspecified illness so debilitating that it required, in his words, “formidable injections,” a condition that he, characteristically private, did not share with some of his closest colleagues on the tour, who simply registered that he was very changeable in mood. Recently, Cunningham has completed a documentary film about his experiences in the world of dance, A Lifetime of Dance.

Merce Cunningham: A Lifetime of Dance

With this year’s publication of Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years With Cage and Cunningham (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), by the dancer Carolyn Brown, the Cage/Cunningham enterprise has the vivid, exacting, opinionated, wide-angled and independent narrative it has needed to connect with a readership beyond scholars and current fans. Between 1952 and 1972, Brown devoted her body and mind, and ultimately sacrificed her loving marriage to the composer Earle Brown, to serve Cunningham and Cage as their de facto principal female dancer and as Cunningham’s principal on-stage partner. They provided her with gorgeous dancing roles, worldwide visibility, travel on tours as far as India and Japan, an oxygenated milieu of camaraderie among artists and the opportunity to realize herself as a contributor to a path-breaking artistic enterprise. She provided them with a keen sense of intelligence; a background in classical ballet that endowed her dancing with serenity and moral devotion, which Cunningham admired and was able to count on; an amazing memory and willingness to do the kind of solitary work that marks a star in dance; and a delight in choreographic innovation.

This memoir also opens a window onto Cunningham’s intrinsically hermetic public personality. In one priceless passage, she describes a party in which Cunningham, a little tipsy, spoke to Brown “about how no one at the party really understood what he did, people didn’t understand about how difficult the music [that accompanied his dances] had made his life, but that he was stubborn.” She maps critical responses to Cunningham and Cage, and her honesty is to be applauded in reporting the uncomfortable yet brilliant questions, focused on the use of chance procedures, which the dramatist Bharati Sarabhai posed following a luncheon for some members of the company that she held at her home in Ahmedabad, India. “If, in the music, any sound is music, any sound can follow any other, be it ugly or beautiful to the human ear, why is it that all the dancers in his company are tall and beautiful? Why not choose the dancers by chance too?,” Brown records Sarabhai as asking. “Merce laughed, and said he’d always wanted to have a company of midgets. This of course, begged the question. Choice, not chance, was involved in the selection of dancers, as well as the composers and designers invited to collaborate with Merce.

Recently, as part of a historic seminar series on Cunningham’s choreographic development that Robert Swinston, former company dancer and now assistant to Cunningham, has organized at the Westbeth studio in Greenwich Village, Cunningham and Brown appeared with Vaughan on a panel to discuss a few of his dances through the 1950s, as embodied in performances of excerpts by members of his current company and apprentice group. The physical strength, stamina, and aerodynamic beauty of Cunningham’s dancers in these older works were simply breathtaking, and more than once the audience could see the performers attempting to go beyond the physical facts of the choreography toward the look that a dance can have when its performers are carrying stories about it in their heads. In Cunningham’s words, “dancing is a spiritual exercise in physical form.” Brown’s memoir reminds dancers, as well as audiences, of exactly how the spiritual gets into the exercise.

Celebrating Our Essential Sense of Humanity

Cunningham has always celebrated the tension between the Apollonian and Dionysian, but in a different manner from everyone else. His dancers, with their legs as attenuated, feet as busy, and spines often as lifted as any ballet artist’s, give the illusion of making choices, even when they are beset by complexities. They tilt their bodies, slash their arms, circle their heads while tearing around a space rendered ominous by electronic storms of music and still manage to look as if this is what they’ve decided to do. This is how they cope with whirlwinds.

Cunningham’s 1999 piece Biped seems to celebrate our uprightness, our two-leggedness, our elemental humanness. The “motion capture” technology-art of Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar, and Aaron Copp’s lighting, surround the dancers with slim poles of light or fence them with descending virtual bars. Diagonal beams rush together and imitate cartwheeling figures; circles leave ranks as orderly as a row of shirt buttons and coalesce into choreography. Intermittently, the performers are shadowed by Eshkar’s elegantly sketchy animated rendering of Cunningham dancers.

Emerging and disappearing from blackness at the rear of the stage, the 14 performers in their glittery silver-blue jumpsuits seem to be part of a tidal flow. One person may have a moment on the shore, be sucked back, but keep returning. There’s little intimacy. Five women may dance in calm accord. Brief partnerships tend to evoke a person facing his or her slightly skewed image in a mirror. Gavin Bryars’s commissioned score has a romantic primality, its own tidal force. Deep electronic tones produced in the pit rumble beneath the live playing of cello, double bass, electric guitar, and keyboard, as well as a recorded component. Like latter-day Mahler, the music resolves only to build to new complications. Amid Biped‘s arduous beauty, the phantom dancers hovering or flying past might be archetypes. Or they just might be angels.

Merce Cunningham: Biped (1999)

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