Onstage at BAM, Mayor Bloomberg lauds the 50th anniversary of Merce Cunningham’s company. Behind him, dancers warm up. Carolyn Brown, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Sage Cowles throw dice to determine which of two music compositions, two decors, two sets of costumes by James Hall (beautifully patterned black-and-gray or brilliant mottled colors), and two lighting plots by James F. Ingalls will come first in the premiere of Split Sides. Three Radiohead musicians give a thumbs-up at “winning” the opening slot over the experimental Icelandic rock group Sigur Rós, and their fans in the packed balconies cheer. Cunningham smiles benignly, enjoying, as usual, the order within potential chaos.
Over the stage hangs a “Merce 50” sign in the shape of an interstate marker. When in those 50 years has he not been in the fast lane of discovery? Yet he’s never been too set in his route to veer off onto roads bumpier and less traveled. His dances—brave new vistas that suddenly remind us of home—continue to disturb some people. In the 2002 Fluid Canvas, sparse patterns of dots and lines moving on the backdrop exemplify up-to-the-minute technology: a motion-capture view of Cunningham hand movements by Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser. For Split Sides, Robert Heishman’s black-and-white camera obscura projections and Catherine Yass’s complex layering and blurring manipulation of color photography yield landscapes both familiar and unreal. The powerful scores by Radiohead and Sigur Rós (played live only on opening night) expand the “rock” label with distinctive, intricate collages of voices, instruments, and electronic sounds. Multiple speakers beam around the hall Radiohead’s dense mix of voices talking, say, or Sigur Rós’s bells.
Cunningham’s 15 magnificently intrepid dancers add his complexity and their own to these worlds. In Fluid Canvas (music by John King), stands of them are sometimes as still as trees—arms branching—while others prowl around them. In both dances, as always, they’re mostly alert, vertical, and as high-stepping and leggy as wading birds. But they may roll their shoulders, cant their heads, let a move ripple or twist their torsos. You could be watching life around a watering hole; rapid flurries of movement or bounding passages across the space succeed smooth, careful maneuvers. Oddity is always possible. At one point in Split Sides, Holley Farmer grabs Daniel Squire’s arm and then throws it away (he later carries her offstage like a lance). Although in one part of this work partners move alike, in many encounters they preserve their independence. When Jeannie Steele and Jonah Bokaer meet in Fluid Canvas, their dance is like an intense if playful conversation with both people talking at once. Over the course of the evening, there’s another intriguing duet for Cédric Andrieux and Derry Swan; a lively trio for Jennifer Goggans, Koji Mizuta, and Bokaer; and remarkable solos for Swan and Bokaer. And so much more. Cheers for Lisa Boudreau, Ashley Chen, Paige Cunningham, Mandy Kirschner, Daniel Roberts, Robert Swinston, and Cheryl Therrien! All power to Merce. No rest stops for him!
Most ballet companies, on the other hand, see preserving the classics as part of their job, but thanks to the vagaries of oral handing-down, those works are already a gumbo of individual dancers’ favorite steps, choreographers’ updates, and managers’ ideas of “fresh” productions. Many were lukewarm about George Balanchine’s Don Quixote, but at least he impressed a personal and deeply felt vision on Cervantes’s tale. The vibrant, often thrilling dancers of Ballet Nacional de Cuba make do with remnants of the 1869 Petipa version, altered early on by Alexander Gorsky, plus new choreography by the company director and Cuban “living treasure” Alicia Alonso, Marta Garcia, and Maria Elena Llorente. Pieces of Ludwig Minkus’s score have been shuffled about, and choreography for one character assigned to another. In a dramatic surprise, the wounded Don Quixote is played by a double, so that Octavio Martin can rise up from behind a rock and enter his own dream of Dulcinea amid wood nymphs. In view of the verve and prowess of the company’s men, a lot more dancing has been created for six red-caped bullfighters (who, for some reason, have daggers instead of banderillas or swords). A lame attempt to insert political comment makes Camacho, the foppish aristocrat determined to wed the innkeeper’s frisky daughter Kitri (who loves the barber, Basil), into a French invader. We’re expected to see Dad as a quisling, and Basil and Kitri’s wedding as striking a blow for freedom and justice.
When the action lags or the choreography is banal, it’s hard to see beyond Salvador Fernandez’s lavish but garishly tasteless costumes. However, the dancers win your heart with their discipline, strength, and beautiful port de bras. As Basil, charmer Joel Carreño, who looks about 16, has stirringly lofty elevation and butter-smooth turns (he sometimes appears unfinished in minor steps). In the climactic pas de deux, Viengsay Valdés perches astonishingly on pointe, supported only by her partner’s smile, while measures of music roll by; she alternates single and double fouettés as if she could go on all night. The ballet also boasts strong, elegant, arrogant dancing by Jaime Diaz as Espada, hero of the bullring; an excellent display by Romel Frómeta as a nimble gypsy; and fine performances by bold Hayna Gutiérrez as Mercedes and long, lean Sadaise Arencibia as the Queen of the Dryads.