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Merce Cunningham Dance Company Celebrates Fiftieth Anniversary


By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 25 January 2004 - This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and in typical fashion, two new Cunningham pieces rather than a retrospective of his works were brought to Paris.

The programme at the Theatre de la Ville opened with Fluid Canvas, 2002, an almost three-dimensional work which told no story, and was set to background noise by John King. Cunningham has always found all sounds worth listening to, including, as in this case, the racket of a building site.

Fluid Canvas, unsurprisingly detached from all expressive or theatrical concerns, places each dancer in the "centre" of the stage, where he or she evolves in their own space in a series of simultaneous and then overlapping dances.. Much or little, dependent on whether one is an admirer or detractor of Cunningham, is happening at the same time, for, as the choreographer himself points out, each of us is different and reacts in different ways. A dancer hops in a diagonal across the stage, and my neighbour nods off to sleep. Two rows in front, a young man is squirming in delight.

Merce Cunningham: Fluid Canvas
Holley Farmer (foreground) and Lisa Boudreau in
Merce Cunningham:Fluid Canvas
Photo credit and copyright: Tony Dougherty

The dancers, not quite as amazing as they once were, nevertheless seemed more alert than their audience, but although some potentially interesting solos and duets began, they led nowhere. They were, however, less incoherent than the backcloth, digital scribbles of limited interest bearing no relation to the choreography. A disappointment after Marc Downie and Shelley Eshkar's glowing images from Biped.

I felt as though I'd seen this work before, and as for the younger people present confronting the Cunningham phenomenon for the first time, in general, it was a let-down. In liberating dance from its academic limitations, and permitting decor, music and choreography to meet only at the first performance, Cunningham has opened the road to a certain sort of freedom, which, as in this case, doesn't always work.

However, destiny smiled with the second piece of the evening, Split Sides, created in 2003, which began with four dark-suited businessmen on stage throwing dice to determine the order of the two distinct parts. Whew! We must have struck lucky, for out of the possible thirty-two combinations of décor, alternatively in black and white or in colour, music and steps, the assorted elements clung together to make an acceptable whole, easily watched, quickly forgotten.

Merce Cunningham: Fluid Canvas
Jean Freebury (foreground), Lisa Boudreau, Koji Mizuta, Daniel Roberts in
Merce Cunningham:Fluid Canvas
Photo credit and copyright: Tony Dougherty

The music by Radiohead and Sigur Ros was allowed to act as a support, while the colourful costumes by James Hall, and changing decor by Robert Heishman and Catherine Yass sustained interest. But as pleasant as Split Sides was, one watched more with indulgence than fascination.

The presentation of the work in another place, order, and time is of little concern to Merce. Since his meeting with John Cage,the lifetime companion who died in 1992, everything that Cunningham does finds meaning the instant it is performed; you have to "do at the moment you are doing it. The show is nothing else than what we see", he has always said.

For those who accept dance as a cerebral exercise, these pieces work, but for those who want to feel something other than what Cunningham gives, and vibrate in another manner, look elsewhere..

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

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