Merce Cunningham Dance Company
The Lincoln Center Festival
New York City
July 12-16, 2005
©2005 by Nancy Dalva
you make a dance in the round?" John Cage asked Merce Cunningham
before the James Joyce/John Cage Festival in Zurich, in June, 1991. He
had in mind a dance performed in the middle of a circular space, surrounded
by the audience and then musicians, in concentric circles. There being
no suitable venue at the Swiss event, Cage's idea was set aside, and a
little more than a year later, he died, quite unexpectedly. Cunningham
went on to make dances that seemed to subsume Cage's death—among
them "Doubtletoss" and "Enter"–and to carry
forward his notion, moving, as in "Breakers," ever closer to
the sea. Cage's grand concept was first fully realized in Brussels on
May 18, 1994, at the vertiginous theater-in-the-round called the Cirque
Royal. There, for the first time, 112 orchestra musicians played a complicated
2,403 page score, "Ocean 1-95," by Andrew Culver, elaborating
on Cage's initial plans; and at the same time, David Tudor introduced
his live electronic soundscape, "Soundings: Ocean Diary," comprised
of eerily reprocessed underwater noise. Marsha Skinner's sea-inspired
leotards and filmy dresses painted the dancers in purples, turquoises,
oranges, mauves, violets—the colors of the sun, the sky, the untroubled
sea. The dance itself was an amazement: 90 teeming minutes of a dance
perfectly without front, back, or sides. It contained (about 26 minutes
from the start) a figure–dancers in a circle, arms linked, variously
balanced—from the very center of a Cunningham work called "Beachbirds,"
made in 1991. Also carried forward, though subtle means of casting and
configurations, were threads from his other Joycean epic made with Cage,
"Roaratorio," which itself had since been echoed in "Enter."
With its slow beginning and convulsive ending–from nothing to everything
and back to nothing—"Ocean" also recalled that other Cunningham
tour de force with a Joycean title, "Sounddance." ("In
the beginning, was the sounddance.") Both were creation myths. And
both, despite the separate conception of score, decor, and dance, had
a fantastic unity of impression.
The Voyage Out
after that opening night performance, Cunningham said, "Now all my
dances look flat to me." His next dance, "Ground Level Overlay,"
premiered in 1995, recreated many of the multi-directional effects of
"Ocean" on a proscenium stage, and one might have expected him
to go on in this rich vein. Instead, having mastered the problems inherent
in these two complex works, Cunningham moved on to still a different way
of working—other complexities, other challenges—making a series
of works that looked like channel zapping, with concomitant, and near-impossible,
refinements to his technique, which now required getting from "here"
to "there" without the "to."
"Ocean," meanwhile, circled the globe: to La Fenice in Venice,
which burned down right after; to Japan; to the first Lincoln Center Festival
in 1996, where it had a fantastic run in a specially built theater in
Damrosch Park. In all, there were eight productions, and then it was gone.
In the intervening years, parts of the dance have been seen in Cunningham's
"Events, " which are intermission-less concerts made up of excerpts
from the repertory and newly made material. The original cast, but two,
retired from the company. And sadly, Chris Komar, Cunningham's assistant
at the time "Ocean" was made, died, and so, later on, did David
In 1992, Robert Swinston, a member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company
for twelve years, became the assistant to the choreographer, and began
work on meticulous archival constructions of works that had fallen out
of performance. Jeannie Steele, who had joined the company just the year
before "Ocean" and danced on to become the senior female in
the troupe, in June 2001 was appointed rehearsal director. They are the
only members of the original cast of "Ocean" still dancing,
and it fell to them to bring back the dance, so that the choreographer
could recalibrate his intricate epic.
The only change in scheme was an adjustment in number. Matthew Mohr joined
the company while the work was being made, and in consequence had a small
role. So also did China Laudisio, who traveled through sections of the
dance paired with Emma Diamond, and appeared in group sections but had
no significant duet or solo tasks. Their two small parts are now combined
into one, danced by Daniel Roberts. This has the salutary effect of giving
the beauteous Lisa Boudreau (in Diamond's part) a cavalier during a wonderful
section of the work in which she travels on a journey through two twined
configurations of dancers, as if through a maze. (There are two other
such moments in the dance when, in a kind of story-theater effect, some
dancers become scenery. There is the circle of men so like the circle
in "Beachbirds," though which Boudreau will weave her way, followed
by three other women. And there is a pergola made by raising Jennifer
Goggans up high and flat in the air, like a lovely roof, where again dancers
weave in and out, like goldfish in and out of a miniature castle.)
Some of the originals were in the house for the New York performances,
seeing for the first time the piece they had made with Cunningham more
than ten years ago. This was a significant revival, with the current company
taking on, all at once, singular solos and highly charged duets created
by singular and high charged performers. The shapes are the same, the
steps are the same, but what you might call the fragrance is different,
because the chemistry is different.
Here is how the casting falls out (proceeding alphabetically), first cast
Kimberly Bartosik–Jennifer Goggans
Thomas Caley–Jonah Bokaer
Michael Cole–Cédric Andrieux
Emma Diamond–Lisa Boudreau
Jean Freebury–Holly Farmer
Frédéric Gafner–Daniel Squire
China Laudisio–Daniel Roberts
Matthew Mohr–Daniel Roberts
Banu Ogan–Andrea Weber
Jared Philips– Koji Mizuta
Glen Rumsay–Rashaun Mitchell
Cheryl Therrien–Marcie Munnerlyn
Jenifer Weaver–Julie Cunningham
Cunningham, of course, did this casting, and it is exceedingly strong.
In some cases, the current dancer bears some physical resemblance to the
original, as with Munnerlyn and Therrien. In others, they are nothing
like. Throughout, the originals are proclaimed by their successors, as
when Bokaer echoes, on his very different body, Caley's plush plié
and remarkable relevé. The greatest change is not in a solo, where
you might expect to find it, nor in any of duets, where the personal dynamics
are so altered, but in two group sections (one at about 27 minutes into
the dance , the next at about 56 minutes), where women are joined by a
single man. In 1994, this was Jared Angle, a blonde, curly-haired, cherub.
With him, the women looked like goddesses playing with Ganymede, their
cup-bearer. With the virtuoso very grown-up Koji Mizuta in the role, the
women look like his harem, or a bevy of sirens, sent to sing him to his
Love Makes the World Go Round
There are four dedicated couples in "Ocean:" Munnerlyn and Mitchell,
Goggans and Squire, Steele and Bokaer, and Weber and Andrieux, with the
rest of the cast rather more fickle. Swinston, in particular, plays the
ladies man, gallantly tending to Boudreau and then the tempering the firebrand
Farmer with grim resolve. Steele, meanwhile, still scampers like a girl,
touchingly escorted by her serious young swain Bokaer, whom she charms
with smiles. Munnerlyn and Mitchell are complimentary angularities (the
originals were more contrasted, he being attenuated and she remarkably
fluid). The other two pairs are so ardent you can feel their every touch.
Goggans is a natural soubrette, but rises to the drama occasioned by the
exceptional focus and attack Squire brings to this role, and indeed all
his roles. And Andrieux! Not only does he rule the men's section like
Poseidon, he turns what was (with Cole and Ogan) a kind of temple sculpture
come-to-life episode into a French film. And a hot one.
Much to the credit of this revival, each of these duets has a different
movement character, which is consistent from the first production, quite
apart from the casting. You can, if you want to, read them as a Cunningham
primer on partnership in dance, or, if you will, in life. A couple can
mirror each other, a couple can follow one another, one partner can pursue
another, and one partner can seduce the other, a couple can get all mixed
up with each other so you can hardly tell them apart, or a couple can
proceed though life in parallel, facing everything together, side by side.
What Goes Around....
"Ocean" is made up of some 128 phrases, and choreographed using
chance procedures to determine facings, numbers of dancers on stage at
given times, and the timings of entrances and exits, but these compositional
devices having no bearing on the experience of seeing it. What does determine
what you see is where you sit on the 360 degree front of the piece. But
while in Damrosch Park there was a sense of foreground and background—what
was in front of you felt immediate, and what was across seemed to be happening
on the other side of the world; the Rose Theater was wonderfully intimate.
There was a great sense of simultaneity and complexity. The excellent
acoustics enhanced this effect, submerging the viewer in a sonar bath.
Perhaps the most complex parts of "Ocean" are the tricky large
group sections; a swathe of these transpire at about 65 minutes into the
piece, when there is a great sweep of group movement. From upstairs–and
up is the place from which to see this work, if you can—there is
a section where, as trios surround single frozen figures and animate them,
you feel as if a spiral staircase were swirling in front of you, with
all the figures on it moving down. By then your eye has accustomed itself
to the language of this dance, which Cunningham lays out at the open,
with two solos.
"Ocean" begins with Daniel Squire performing a phrase—almost
like an alphabet, or a vocabulary—in varying directions, so that
you see him do the same thing first from one angle, and then from another.
He exits, and Julie Cunningham—a pristine technician with perfect
placement—comes in and gives the feminine version of the text. You
see this and you of course move on with the dance, but the choreographer
will bring you back here later, restating their themes. Some
70-odd minutes into the piece, several of the women in turn are lifted
by three men, and put down again facing different directions, as if they
were sculpture and their porters (Bokaer, Mitchell, Roberts, a frequent
trio throughout) were art movers. One of these is Julie Cunningham. Then
at about 78 minutes, Squire returns with three women, but they do not
carry him. Rather, he moves from position to position—stepping out
in huge "rondes de jambe," or outward circles of the leg, tracing
giant curves on the floor. When he pauses, the women support him (he assumes
a different statuesque pose at each of ten points on the stage) and are
at the same time supported. Somewhere in the sequence, he transforms into
Apollo, and they into the Muses, and then, in a few places, the notion
vanishes. But the allusion is there, if you want it to be, as is any other
meaning you want to find.
The technique that binds "Ocean" into a whole is the
use of recurrence and repetition of what we might call visual "rhyme."
For instance, take a phrase performed by Jonah Bokaer. He commands the
stage at the time, about 26 minutes into the piece, moving in a fast circling
outward with one leg moving like a propeller. This is performed again
near the end of the piece by two women, as part of a complex group section
where it catches your eye by chance. This sort of thing happens throughout.
A phrase or figure is often clearly and quite ravishingly repeated—as
when Jeannie Steele is lifted, at 62 minutes, in different directions,
so that she seems to be sailing around the stage. But also, a phrase can
be echoed almost subliminally. So: the same phase, different dancer, different
direction, different configuration on stage. This effects what in a poem
would be feminine rhyme, or slant rhyme. A rhyme that's slightly off,
but there. In this manner, Cunningham casts his net, elastic and strong.
For all the circularity of "Ocean"—there's one giddy
moment when Robert Swinston spins like a top in order to move—the
most magical of its directions is up. Up, up. Above the work—in
Brussels it was rigged to rise over the piece as the dance began—is
a white mesh disk. It could be the top of a tent, it could be the sky,
it can be whatever you want it to be. To me, it seems like a veil. Something
we cannot see through, or beyond. There is light behind it, so that when
the dancers look up, as they often do throughout the piece, they are illuminated.
As a practicality, their gesturing up includes those in the upper tiers
of the theater in their activities. As a metaphor, they may be saluting
something, or someone, up above us, in the boundless aether.
Not that Cunningham would suggest that—something metaphorical. But
neither would he mind it. Just like all of his work, "Ocean"
is different for each viewer. As usual, the choreographer encourages individual
interpretation by avoiding conventional story-telling, instead making
movement drama via off-kilter trios, juicy duets, intense solos, teeming
group sections; and also by contrasting types of movement. Allegro and
largo. Largo within allegro, allegro within largo. Stillness contrasted
with steppiness; heaviness contrasted with lightness. Trios carried across
personnel, so that a series of dancers performs one long phrase. Morphing
groups, so that a quintet becomes five solos, or a trio and two solos,
catching you up in the inconstant, changing relationships. But here, in
this dance, in "Ocean," the physical set up—the audience
seated in the round, and the choreography made so that every point on
its 360 degrees is the front—enhances what you might call the psychic
set up. What seems to be arriving to you seems to be leaving to me. (In
this way a Cunningham dance, and this one especially, is a lot like life.)
You might have experienced "Ocean" as an episodic adventure
along the lines of the "Odyssey," or perhaps as a romance, with
each duet its own love story. Or yours may have been a more contemplative
perspective, with the dance viewed as seascape, or moving sculpture. Your
particular lens may be microcosmic, so that the tricky fugue sections
looked like step dancers on a village green; or it may be macrocosmic,
so that these figurations appeared as constellations—just what you
would see if, one starry night at sea, you gazed up at the sky. Whatever
you saw in the dance, every night of this past week, you could see (unless
you were in the tier above him, sharing his perspective) Merce Cunningham,
seated in the first tier of seats, watching his dance from the audience.
The maker, out among us, sharing his vision. He sees and shows us the
world without preconceptions, but with a clear mind, a constant curiosity
and an open heart.
Photos (all by Stephanie
First: The company in "Ocean."
Second: Rashaun Mitchell and Marcie Munnerlyn perform "Ocean"
Third: Cedric Andrieux and Jeannie Steele perform "Ocean"
Fourth: Daniel Squire arm up, with three women: Jennifer Goggans
on left, Holly Farmer paratially visible, Jeannie Steele
July 18, 2005
Alan M. Kriegsman
Sali Ann Kriegsman
Alexandra Tomalonis (Editor)
Kathrine Sorley Walker