Chance, Meaning, and Fine Dancing
Split Sides & Ground Level Overlay
I came a Radiohead fan; I left a Merce Cunningham fan. The Cunningham Company’s Washington area premiere of "Split Sides," which includes music by Radiohead, left me feeling that the continued valorization of this notable choreographer is not a case of conventional wisdom’s inertia. At 83, Mr. Cunningham still creates experimental, beautiful, engaging work. (It doesn’t hurt that his dancers are one of the best assemblages of technicians anywhere.)
The evening began by highlighting Mr. Cunningham’s use of chance. Four people (all from the local dance community) rolled the die to decide the order of various elements of "Split Sides," which would be performed after intermission, while Mr. Cunningham himself, looking more than a little like a mustache-less Einstein behind a podium, explained the process. The die rolling determined the first section would be the “B” dance with Radiohead’s music, Catherine Yass’s décor, light plot 300 and colored costumes. The second: “A” dance with Sigur Ros’s music, Robert Heishman’s décor, light plot 200 and black and white costumes. The die-rolling performance before the performance seemed a bit overblown. The video projection of the die on the stage’s scrim and each roller pronouncing “odd” or “even” into a mike felt a bit like an overly produced bingo tournament. But, the episode made me very aware of "Split Sides" chance-based composition as I watched it later in the evening.
Mr. Cunningham’s use of chance forces the audience to consider how we make meaning from art and, for that matter, from life. In "Split Sides'" first section, Radiohead’s music percolating with dissonant sound and voices, at one point popping about in a quick staccato. As the percussive section climaxed, a small group of dancers performed an allegro stage left. The dance fit perfectly with the music, but I knew that a different role of the die would have meant the same section would have had Sigur Ros’s score behind it instead, or the dancers performing slightly slower or faster might have put different movement in that musical moment. Chance brought together the elements; my eyes and ears made sense of them. I was constructing meaning from a random collision. As much as I may preach the transformative power of art, it’s rare that a choreographer makes me consider my world differently, but Mr. Cunningham’s "Split Sides" did.
Beyond the mental exercises prompted by "Split Sides," the work includes dynamic movement and design elements as well, but all the elements work together in a democratic harmony, each feeding the other. Yass’s pastel décor seems three dimensional. Long chutes of almost transparent pastels on the backdrop stretch from ceiling to floor like a futuristic city of light. The black lines on the white background of James Hall’s costumes dissect the dancers’ bodies, inviting the eye to look at individual pieces. As a petite brunette woman (whose forceful precision often drew my attention) performed Wednesday’s final solo, the slight expansion of her rib cage as she breathed made the costume dance.
Having been so drawn to "Split Sides" by Mr. Cunningham’s commissioning of two favorite bands of mine, I was not as enthusiastic about either as I had hoped to be. Radiohead’s music worked relatively well within the piece. Lead singer Thom Yorke relied heavily on a monotonous droning pronouncement of words that has appeared on many Radiohead albums, since “Ok Computer.” The collaboration did not push the band a new direction. As for Sigur Ros, at least one critic (unfortunately, I cannot remember who) commented after the New York premiere that the band relied heavily on melody, which seemed an odd fit for Mr. Cunningham. He or she was right. Sigur Ros is one of the biggest names in avant garde rock today, but paired with Cunningham’s choreography they sounded positively mainstream, ready for Clear Channel radio. At the heart of "Split Sides’s" and the evening’s other work, "Ground Level Overlay" are the dancers.
Merce Cunningham’s work demands absolute precision and extreme technical skill. In ballet, I find an elongated attitude one of the most beautiful lines of the body, when the knee is just barely bent and the dancer almost tricks my eye to believe the joint bends not at an angle, but in a lovely curve. The Cunningham dancers repeat this illusion again and again, with long, splendid arms and undercurves and overcurves of the torso. And they match each other to exact degree. Then, they couple these gorgeous lines in their torsos and arms with tiny, sharp, fast movements with their heads, legs and feet, exhibiting extreme levels of kinesthetic intelligence. Watching the "Split Sides'" wondrous structure, I do not wonder from where they receive such knowledge. They are dancing the work of a master.
Photos, all by Tony