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V I R T U A L · D A N C E

by Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 2 March 1998 - It is impossible to remain indifferent to Merce Cunningham. One is either an admirer or detractor and so it has been for the last fifty years. Cunningham's choreography has no story, theme or subject and is rarely supported by music, so his style is not for everyone as all those who sneaked off in the first interval at the Palais Garnier discovered.

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company, invited for the second time to the Palais Garnier, presented two different programmes :  Rune , Garnier Event I,  Scenario, and  Installations,  Pond Way ,  Garnier Event II. However, the argument is not whether a Cunningham programme is good or bad ; it is simply essential, so maybe it's irrelevant that people leave halfway through.

A disciple of the great Martha Graham, Cunningham ,nearing eighty and a monument himself , has spent his life exploring movement, working to "free"  dance from the traditional conventions of ballet and his work is superbly constructed, supremely clever. But the accompanying sounds at the recent performances in Paris were described as  "an absolutely dreadful noise" by many in the audience and scrumpling silver paper having replaced the dripping taps of John Cage, Cunningham's close collaborator until his death in 1992, the question to be asked is whether dance can live without music. According to the American director it seems it can, for his dancers rarely hear their musical accompaniment before the final dress-rehearsal.

Moreover, the choreographer has used sophisticated software to try-out virtual dance figures for many years. His staunchest admirers are quick to point out that Cunningham uses the computer programme  Lifeforms  to enable him to experiment with movements that he can no longer perform himself and to choreograph pieces for his company without requiring the dancers to be present, a way of working which demands a high level of creative imagination.

When there is no emotion in a piece, only abstraction, there's little room left for development and expression and it appears Cunningham, even with his excellent troupe, can go no further. His ballets now all seem much the same to me and I'm afraid I miss any subtle differences . Art must express ; it cannot all be void and emptiness. Merce Cunningham, whose works neither lift nor transcend said what he had to say twenty years ago.

Having thoroughly enjoyed the work of two young French choreographers recently, Thierry Malandain and Philippe Découflé, full of innovation, freshness and humour, it seems to me that dance has moved on.

Photo Credits : Jacques Moatti, Chris Callis
Merce Cunningham Dance Company

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance from Paris. She contributes to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times. Ms Boccadoro was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. She is Dance editor of

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