Merce Cunningham, an icon of modern dance, is getting a fitting centennial celebration at the Kennedy Center. The week-long programming includes an exploration of the artist’s film work, and an art installation of his collaboration with Andy Warhol, all on display at the venue’s new REACH space.
The centennial of course also features performances of his work, danced by Compagnie Centre National de Danse Contemporaine-Angers, a French company led by Robert Swinston, himself a former dancer with Cunningham who is dedicated to keeping his work alive. It’s a transporting evening for devotees of modern dance.
The first of the two pieces, “Beach Birds,” is a symphony of subtlety. The curtain opens on a “flock” of birds in darkness. The dancers’ sleek costuming (by Marsha Skinner), white bodysuits with black gloves, give the illusion of wings. Dancers’ movements never align with the more obvious mimicry of bird movements – there is very little flapping. Rather, in restrained and constrained style, the choreography interprets bird-like movement, which can take the charming form of a dancer hopping along the ground, or several individuals shaking their legs, as though shaking off excess water.
…a transporting evening for devotees of modern dance.
Cunningham’s revolutionary ideas about music and dance are on full display here. He, along with his creative and domestic partner, John Cage, developed a philosophy in which music and dance exist within the space, independently. The live music, scored by John Cage, is an assembly of piano notes, percussion, and a sustained harsh string tone that creates mood and not melody.
Like birds themselves, what appears as random movement may reveal a complex, animal culture alien to humans. As dancers remain affectless, only movement conveys connection or affection. As the dance proceeds, individuals form pairs, trios, and groups, which interact in delicately complex ways. Abrupt moments of silence and stillness can be as startling as noise or explosive movement would be for another choreographer.
Cunningham’s exploration of dance and technology is centered in the succeeding performance of the brashly innovative “BIPED,” which combines motion capture, projected graphics, and live dance. Dancers in metallic bodysuits emerge onto a darkened stage covered by a gauzy curtain, across which flits the digitally captured movements of dancers, rendered into abstract form and illustration. Cunningham worked with digital artists Shelley Shkar and Paul Kaiser, who recorded the movements of two of the company’s dancers to create the projections.
It’s a daring and dramatic piece, with a sense of urgency, amplified by the ethereal music. Partly recorded, partly performed live, the musicians seamlessly weave together violin and synth, combined with a percussive beat that can seem almost menacing at times. The composer, Gavin Bryars, is also a performer.
The set, shrouded in shadowy darkness, creates a sense of mystery and mystique. Many entrances, hidden by a lack of light, make for bold and surprising entrées by the ensemble. Compared to the first piece’s subtlety, lighting changes, designed by Aaron Copp, are bold and sweeping. The choreography also seems to mark an evolution towards greater complexity. A display of floating white graphic spheres, projected late in the performance, make the dancers appear as though they are dancing on a cosmic stage, adding a grandness to the performance.
This reviewer experienced the performance with a very appreciative audience, a reminder of how much Cunningham’s work remains respected and revered, while it also continues to find new audiences. “I’ve never seen anything like that,” I overheard one audience member say, in wonder. I whole-heartedly agree.
Running Time: About 2 hours with one intermission.
“Merce Cunningham at 100” ran through Oct. 5, 2019, at The Kennedy Center. For more information on what is coming to The Kennedy Center, click here.