Sea Life and Strange Fruit


When Merce Cunningham’s magnificent Ocean had its New York premiere on a circular stage erected in Damrosch Park in 1996, street noises, birds, and gusts of wind entered the work. John Cage, apostle of chance, would have loved these additions. It was he who had planned Ocean as an event in the round with 112 musicians seated in a circle above the audience, although he didn’t live to write the score. For the work’s second Lincoln Center Festival showing, in the Rose Theater, with the seating adjusted to accommodate the original design, the music alone offers unpredictability enough: The performers of David Tudor’s electronic score Soundings: Ocean Diary make on-the-spot choices, and the overhead instrumentalists playing Andrew Culver’s
Ocean 1-95 move through five sequences of 19 compositions each “as they become available.” Cunningham used chance procedures in structuring 128 phrases into 19 sections of dancing.

You don’t think about complex numerical symbolism when you watch this piece. Sitting in the theater is like being in a rocking boat, watching the superb dancers come and go like flotsam, like birds, like leaping fishes. The music’s rich, unstopping ebb-and-flow yields allusions to bells, horns, creaking timbers, flapping cloth, sudden crashes. As Ocean progresses, Marsha Skinner’s flesh-colored unitards give way to shaded sun golds or blue-greens; the women acquire and discard filmy dresses, and by the end everyone shimmers in winey purple.

Seeing Ocean after nine years, I notice the stillnesses more—the way some dancers freeze for long periods, as if marooned by musical tides, while others move, alert and quick-footed. New arrivals stir action; Jonah Bokaer’s big, bent-legged jumps act like a depth charge to set others flying. I also notice how often the dancers look up; how often they lift their arms in big, open curves; how flatly they balance tilted, like spread sails.

When the several large digital clocks count down to zero, the music starts. At two minutes Daniel Squire begins the marvelous solo that heralds the dance, with its winging suspensions and runs into backward skids, legs spread in a wide stance. At exactly 90 minutes, the stage is empty, and silence and darkness fall. The choreographic riches in between are many. Men play a grave sort of tag: One runs and touches another, pushing him into a new pose. Cédric Andrieux faces Andrea Weber and slowly, without moving his feet, twists her into a long lean; then, sitting, he lays her back in a hinge across his knees. Holley Farmer hurries over, helps her up, and then returns to her own dancing. Over and over, Andrieux, Bokaer, and Robert Swinston lift Jeannie Steele and put her down—trying new positions. Several times, Steele, Farmer, and Jennifer Goggins run to surround Squire, braced against him, each standing on one leg, although he, recklessly off balance, is no bulwark. In one spot, spouting jumps break a calm surface; in another two people stand close together, slowly adjusting their limbs to each other. Clusters form and dissolve. You could happily drown in this world.

The opening solo of Ronald K. Brown’s Grace is a fine, skillful piece of choreography, showing a grasp of structure that isn’t usually Brown’s long suit (Bridget Moore gave it a wonderfully nuanced performance at Jacob’s Pillow). Like a preacher, Brown often sends out the juicy, fervent African-based movements he devises as if to say, “Now see this!” “See it!” “Do you see it?” By which I mean that, much as I love watching his works, they sometimes ramble.

Blueprint of a Lady: The Once and Future Life of Billie Holiday is a collaboration with the powerful, inventive jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon. The first part premiered at Jacob’s Pillow; the full-evening piece will be shown at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center this fall. The deconstructed narrative, in which Holiday’s life infuses her work, confronts Brown with a new set of compositional issues. A digital film by Robert Penn offers facts about the woman born Eleanora Fagan; so does Freelon, backed onstage by piano, bass, and percussion. The initial juxtaposition of music and dance is clear. Freelon sings “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was,” and Camille Brown excellently renders Lady Day’s tough, look-at-me side, with an edge of vulnerability.

Then things get a little confusing. C. Brown, Moore, Shandi Nwando Ikeriona Collins, and Tiffany Jackson cluster like girlfriends around Freelon as she sings; then, one by one, they exit and re-enter, looking challengingly around, and one by one each attracts a man and leaves with him. This happens in one corner, almost behind Freelon, but imagery that suggests Holiday’s early prostitution quickly shifts gears, as women and men (Arcell Cabuag, Juel Lane, Keon Thoulouis, and the choreographer) follow Freelon like friendly fans. Is it Billie the women lay down lilies for? Is it Billie’s rage they then explode with, or the world’s? They vigorously brush C. Brown’s dress at the words “I want to come clean,” but the metaphor isn’t developed enough to move beyond the literal and set up a solo for Jackson that segues into “Strange Fruit.” And how to dissolve the panicky running unleashed by that terrifying song about lynching into the rousing dance that accompanies Freelon’s surprisingly upbeat delivery of “Willow Weep for Me”? Perhaps the questions will be answered in New Jersey.

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