Famed for his ceaseless
commitment to experimentation, he was also well known for his collaborations with
pioneers in other disciplines (especially composers and artists like John Cage and
Robert Rauschenberg) to produce a radical form of total theatre, in which dance,
music and design were all created independently.
This performance of Nearly Ninety at the Dance Umbrella festival is
part of the Legacy Tour, which over two years will take 18 works by Cunningham to
40 cities in America and Europe. This will be the last chance to see Cunninghamís
choreography performed live by dancers he personally trained before the company
closes at the end of next year.
Characteristically challenging and uncompromising, this piece is pure dance with
no narrative or scenario, so it is difficult to place it in context or interpret its meaning.
Twelve dancers, sometimes in male/female duets, but also in solos and ensembles, in
perform a series of intricately detailed angular movements, often with different dances
going on at same time. Seemingly struggling to maintain balance, as if floating in
space, initially there is a sense of disconnection but ultimately they come together in a
triumphant affirmation of the human spirit.
With the performers wearing Romeo Gigliís skin-tight white costumes with dark-
grey stripes, like alternative, slightly robotic Trekkies, there is a strongly futuristic
feel to the work, enhanced when after 20 minutes in, a semi-transparent curtain
rises to reveal an otherworldly, multi-level steel structure by Benedetta Tagliabue.
Suggesting a spaceship or temple, it houses six musicians playing live, rotating
to allow different perspectives. Near the end, a dancer ascends the staircase and a
platform lowers for her to perform a solo above the other dancers on stage, like a high
priest overseeing some strangely mystical ritual, a joyously transcendent occasion.
The musicians are very much centre stage, playing an eerily electronic score by
John Paul Jones, Takehisa Kosugi and Sonic Youth, with keyboards, guitars, flute,
saxophone and percussion, like music from the planets, sometimes rising urgently
to a disturbing climax, then subsiding again into atmospheric mystery. Franc Aleuís
video shows distorted close-ups of dancers and musicians performing, while Brian
MacDevittís sudden shafts of light provide penetrating moments of illumination.
Although the show is rather self-indulgently long at 110 minutes (including
interval), and the set and music may seem overbearing, Nearly Ninety is still
an intriguing, fully fledged example of Cunninghamís artistic credo.
In one of those weird coincidences, Cunningham died about the same time last
year as another famous dance pioneer, Pina Bausch, whose company Tanztheater
Wuppertal is performing the dance-opera Iphigenia in Tauris at Sadlerís
Wells this week. Now being run by two of her close assistants, they will continue to
revive Bauschís work, and no doubt produce new work by other choreographers. But
for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, next autumn at the Barbican will be
their final stop in Britain on what has been an epic voyage of discovery.
For further information on Dance Umbrella 2010, visit their website: DanceUmbrella.co.uk