In 1997, years after seeing a performance by Merce Cunningham’s company, Peter Schjeldahl wrote in this paper, “I think it altered my genetic code.” Coming across this remark again in Roger Copeland’s stimulating new book Merce Cunningham: The Modernizing of Modern Dance, I thought, “Yes!” Cunningham’s dances have done more than just open our eyes and ears to new possibilities and conjunctions; they’ve altered how we process information.
At the final performance of the company’s Joyce season, I’m just off a plane with my body clock lurching; the dancers have performed two shows yesterday and one earlier today. It’s not a great situation, and for a while my eyes reel at the sight of performers striding and springing around the stage, looking like space-age candy in James Hall’s unitards (white at the top, chartreuse with shocking pink, or vice versa, below). The program, like all those this week, is an Event—a recipe for disciplined chaos. Excerpts from various dances are seamed together, and performed with different music and decor at each show. Tonight, a tall, bony structure by Karlos Carcamo stands guard at the rear, and Ikue Mori and Marina Rosenfeld labor with electronic equipment and a laptop on opposite sides of the theater.
I’d guess the first few minutes date from the 1980s; the dancers keep their arms at their sides while their articulate legs and feet sprint them about the stage. When moves by an individual or sub-group trigger another squad’s adventures, the dancers exhibit the unworried alacrity of birds flocking and dispersing. Cunningham and our restructured brains allow us to perceive the dancing as patterns and impulses constantly reorganizing themselves and the space they inhabit; the play with time keeps our eyes shifting, to catch bursts of motion or snag on stillness.
But this isn’t the only way to watch a Cunningham work. Koji Mizuta bounds onto the stage, twisting and tilting, turning one leg in and out with whiplash speed, and reminding us that Cunningham’s complex choreography, independent of its music, requires a heroic degree of alertness. When dancers like Mizuta fully engage with that alertness, the work becomes charged with the beauty of human intelligence—an intelligence in some way sensual.
I’m truly awake now, and so are most of the dancers. I can appreciate how Mori and Rosenfeld’s music resonates with and against the choreography. Jennifer Goggins brings to life the mysterious solo from Scramble that Cunningham made decades ago for Carolyn Brown. Andrea Weber, a wonderfully attentive, alive performer, makes balancing on one toe and unfolding the other leg a deep subject. Excerpts from works constructed since Cunningham began using the computer program LifeForms as a choreographic stimulus challenge the image of his style as dispassionate; it’s impossible for a dancer to perform some of the off-kilter wrenches and coordinations without seeming to attempt serenity in a maelstrom. And in one engrossing trio, Jonah Bokaer, Julie Cunningham, and Mizuta look as warily bold as animals. So, later, does Robert Swinston, simply by the way he turns his head to stare back where he came from.
Did I have to be converted, or was I born to love art like this?
Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo has never played Monte Carlo, but historical appropriation—or misappropriation—is a company specialty. Whether dancing familiar works or satirical takes on them, the ensemble of men in tutus and pointe shoes, under the artistic direction of Tory Dobrin, unearths the comedy lurking in the most august staples of the ballet repertory. Dancing Mikhail Fokine’s Les Sylphides, the Trocks get a lot of mileage from the corps de ballet’s function of decorative framing (one falls asleep, another becomes absorbed in getting her tulle skirt to cover her ankle). Even in scrupulous unison, this is a corps of individuals: Small Fifi Barkova is slightly sour tonight, Yakatarina Verbosovich finds Chopin and stage moonlight wonderfully romantic, Alla Snizova’s flirtatious smile is big enough to entrap a rodent.
The best jokes have to do with dancing and choreography rather than diva behavior. Peter Anastos’s classic Go for Barocco spoofs, among other things, Balanchine’s predilection for daisy chains (one of them ventures into low-modernism machine imagery). Every time hefty Margeaux Mundeyn, in the “Prelude” from Sylphides, lands from a leap, corps members’ feet slide a little further apart. Powerfully vivacious Olga Supphozova turns the “Mazurka” ‘s multiple pirouette into a skater’s whiz-around and founders in a cornucopia of tulle. Pavel Törd wanders limply through Sylphides, playing to its hilarious hilt the role of a poetic hero so dazed he can’t recognize his partner among the white flock. Tall, horse-faced Ida Nevasayneva bourrées in for The Dying Swan, shedding enough feathers to make a lakeside trail. In Pamela Pribisco’s version (“after Balanchine”) of Tarantella, Sveltlana Lofatkina becomes so hooked on circling piqué turns that it seems she’ll never quit.
The dancers are notches better, technically, than they once were. Lofatkina, Lariska Dumbchenko, Supphozova, and others have no trouble knocking off, say, fouettés alternating with multiple turns, or plowing brusquely through tricky Petipa-style footwork. Slender Vera Namethatunenova flashes coolly limber arabesques in Barocco. And, in their ardent belief in the Beauty of Ballet, they are all often truly beautiful.
Read Jowitt on Copeland’s Merce Cunningham at villagevoice.com.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 21, 2004