Theater archives

The Dance of Chance


Merce Cunningham and John Cage were using chance procedures to shuffle music and dance sequences before Steve Jobs was born. With Cunningham’s new eyeSpace, the audience gets to play. We hear half of Mikel Rouse’s score, variously shuffled, on iPods. Text sung and spoken by the dancers (sample: “I almost lost my foot, but I didn’t lose my foot”) emerges from a murmur of instruments and other sounds. Rouse and Stephan Moore also generate noise on the theater’s speakers—mostly street and subway clamor. Sitting there in our headphones we might be on the subway, except that no musical favorites cocoon us from commotion.

This aural experience is somewhat like life; the visual one isn’t. Henry Samelson’s tomato-red backdrop is strewn with mostly blue shapes that resemble several-pronged nails. Josh Johnson echoes the design by casting white slashes of light on the floor. The dancers in their electric blue unitards form other visual slashes. Samelson’s title for his decor, Blues Arrive Not Anticipating What Transpires Even Between Themselves, could be applied to the choreography, although we know that these 12 marvelous dancers have to anticipate what looks unplanned. As eyeSpace begins, Cédric Andrieux, Jonah Bokaer, Brandon Collwes, and Andrea Weber move as a herd, slowly lunging in place. Others arrive and depart unexpectedly and with tranquil awareness, like animals approaching a water hole.

As in many recent Cunningham dances, the movement rings complex and virtuosic changes on three basic motifs: stalking about on tiptoe, balancing for a long time on one leg, and jumping or leaping. The dancers may tilt or bend their torsos, but their natural stance is erect and their gaze level. This style figures to some degree in Scenario MinEvent, drawn from the 1997 Scenario. Rei Kawakubo’s extraordinary costumes, for which fabric with white-and-blue stripes and/or green-and-white checks has been stitched over huge pads, gives the dancers humpbacks, goiters, swollen buttocks, and potbellies. It’s as if a Project Runway contestant had experienced a major meltdown. Both costumes and choreography seem wittier than they did in 1997. It’s a good joke to watch sprightly Koji Mizuta hop sideways across the stage, paying no attention to his pendulous stomach as he shivers one leg in the air. Collwes and Julie Cunningham, Bokaer and Marcie Munnerlyn, Mizuta and Holley Farmer parade foppishly as if meeting at a court ball.

Crises (1960) is braver than anything passing for avant-garde today. What a dance! With amazing success, J. Cunningham, Jennifer Goggans, Farmer, Rashaun Mitchell, and Weber—coached by Carolyn Brown and Carol Teitelbaum—recreate roles tailored for Judith Dunn, Brown, Viola Farber, Cunningham himself, and Marilyn Wood. A great space seems to surround the dancers (wearing unitards that recreate Robert Rauschenberg’s originals). Their serene wildness contrasts stunningly with Conlon Nancarrow’s feverish Studies for Player Piano. The long stillnesses are as compelling as the extraordinary movements are extraordinary. Farmer stands on one leg, rippling her arms—a study in boneless control; Mitchell, lashing his limbs, advances on her as if she’s conjured him to her side. He projects an animal’s intentness and force—whether grasping J. Cunningham’s ankle while she steps out; bending Goggans’s back over his arm and walking her along, as she stretches each leg high; or crawling in on his hands and feet, belly up. Imagine a stallion sniffing out a bunch of mares.

Elastic bands complicate interactions. Farmer hooks an elbow through one around Mitchell’s waist and makes him spin around her. Weber and J. Cunningham are briefly bound together by a single ankle elastic. Every move seems individual and eccentric, including the moment when Cunningham walks calmly across the stage, stopping occasionally to turn her head and stare at us. Spend an evening with a genius and you come away feeling smarter and happier.