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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 20 JANUARY 2010 — A little over a year ago, Alain Crombecque, the general director of the Festival d'Automne in Paris and Emmanuel Demarcy Mota, director of the Theatre de la Ville, planned a special evening to celebrate Merce Cunningham's 90th birthday to take place on his arrival here in December. Three French choreographers who drew their early inspiration from him, and whose work Cunningham admired, were invited to create pieces in honour of the occasion, which sadly became a tribute after his death last July.

The evening began with a fascinating and all too short ten minute film, Mondays with Merce, produced by the Cunningham Dance Foundation. It opened with a shot of little Merce, somewhere between the ages of maybe one or four to five years old, but quite recognizable (!), and continued with a chronology of his life over the following decades including footage of him dancing in his early twenties. From being a child, the American choreographer never lost his smile, his spontaneity and imagination, or his irrepressible need to play, in his case with dance, but always with humour, always with modesty. Throughout his life, he never ceased to work and to invent all the movements imaginable. "There are certain limits to the movements that the human body can do, but within those limits, the number of variations is endless", he said.

Merce Cunningham
Photo: Mark Seliger
Photo courtesy of Merce Cunningham Dance Company

Mathilde Monnier, who studied at Westbeth, Cunningham's studio in New York, and who currently works at the Centre Choreographique of Montpellier, created Un Américain à Paris for him, an interesting idea consisting of a monologue read by the young Marcus Vigneron-Coudray.  It was composed of many of Cunningham's ideas, sayings and anecdotes, and subsequently illustrated in dance by the boy himself, aided and abetted by the charismatic Foofwa d'Imobilité.

But it was Jerome Bel's 35 minute extract from Cédric Andrieux, a solo interpreted by Andrieux, which proved the most relevant of the French contributions to the evening. Cunningham, who was said to have been most intrigued by Bel's work, would probably have been delighted with this contribution which related to Andrieux' time spent with Cunningham's company and which included extracts from works by Trisha Brown, Cunningham, Philippe Tréhet, and Bel himself. It provided us all with juicy, amusing insights into the American choreographer's work,

Hands by his sides and sporting a red T-shirt and navy-coloured jogging bottoms, Andrieux introduced himself, told us his age, about how he learned about Cunningham's work from books his mother possessed, and then declared that he'd liked non of the pieces of Cunningham's he'd subsequently been to see.

Jerome Bel: Cédric Andrieux
Photo: Anna Finger
Photo courtesy of Theatre de la Ville, Paris

But whereas this journey through her memories was totally out of keeping and context at the Palais Garnier, the same idea applied to an ex-Cunningham dancer and given in such a programme at the Theatre de la Ville worked. Even down to the bottle of water that the two dancers, at a five year interval, waggled at their audience.

After Bel's easy-going piece, Boris Charmatz' 45 minute offering, 50 ans de danse, was hard going, particularly after the first 10 minutes when he had said all he had to say and the work became repetitive.  50 years of dance was an excellent project in itself, the idea coming from Merce Cunningham's own book, Merce Cunningham, un demi-siècle de danse, which just about covers everything Cunningham ever did. Perhaps the accumulation of the photographs of all the works plus those of Merce himself proved too confusing for Charmatz, who, not having the genius of a Cunningham, had problems to work them into a coherent choreography. For in Charmatz' piece, dance did not take wing between two gestures or between two positions, however hard the dancers, all ex-members of Cunningham's company tried. This piece, coming so soon after Cunningham's own, Nearly Ninety, programmed at the theatre the preceding week, seemed a poor copy of what Merce Cunningham was about.

Nearly Ninety
Photo: Anna Finger
Photo courtesy of Theatre de la Ville, Paris

Certainly, Nearly Ninety is far from being one of Cunningham's most memorable pieces, but it certainly holds its own for a complete evening of dance despite the horrible arrangements of sounds by John Paul Jones and Takehisa Kosugi, where people clearing their throats and spluttering into their handkerchiefs blended neatly into the live score.

Premiéred in New York on April 16th, 2009, the choreographer's own birthday, the work has probably gained by the added poignancy of knowing that it was his last piece.  It is more poetical than spectacular, with its turning trios of men and women who, hands joined, move sculpturally in slow-motion across the stage; dancers who come from nowhere, to go no place. Then, each one, alone and yet together, in their dark, dusky costume, takes over the place occupied by the precedent. Groups form, unravel, reach out, accelerate and slow down with grace in a surrealist ballet of movement against lighting which changes from harsh white to orange to ice blue-grey. One might not love Cunningham's work, but one cannot fail to admire it.

Nearly Ninety possesses a solemn beauty of its own, but the cold, clinical precision of the dancers, even if they performed each movement as if it were for the first time, did come as a shock after all the colour, life and emotion seen at the theatre the previous week in the work of Pina Bausch. So much of Cunningham's work seemed more postures than dance and what emotion there was came from the dedication of the dancers and from the knowledge that this man who had given his life to dance was there no longer.

Headline image: 50 ans
Photo: David Bergé
Photo courtesy of Theatre de la Ville, Paris  

Merce Cunningham Dance Company Website

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She has contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for

Related Culturekiosque Archives

Obituary: Merce Cunningham: 1919 - 2009

Merce Cunningham Dance Company Celebrates Fiftieth Anniversary

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