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Lessons in longevity
Merce Cunningham at BAM, Rennie Harris at the Majestic

NEW YORK — At the start of performances last week at Brooklyn Academy, a disembodied voice intoned: "Ladies and gentlemen, Merce Cunningham." When the curtain rose, the choreographer was standing at a lectern surrounded by people in mufti; a bunch of dancers were warming up behind them. "We are here to cast the dice . . . " Cunningham announced. His companions turned out to be famous friends and collaborators on Split Sides, the new work whose form for the evening was about to be determined by chance procedures.

Chance is not a new technique for Cunningham. Long ago he decided that he didn’t want his dances to be projections of his own emotional states or physical preferences, and beginning in 1951, following his partner John Cage, he employed randomizing processes to turn some decision-making responsibilities over to an impersonal, impartial authority. The traditional modern dancers of the time were scandalized. Cunningham persisted.

There were 10 pre-planned variables to be assembled for each performance of Split Sides: two sets each of choreography, by Cunningham, music (the bands Radiohead and Sigur Rós), costumes (James Hall), lighting (James F. Ingalls), and décor (Robert Heishman and Catherine Yass). The die was cast for the order of the two 20-minute choreography segments in the afternoon so that the dancers would have time to prepare. For the on-stage dice ritual, an odd or even throw decreed the sequence for each pair of elements, and the roll of the single die was projected on an overhead screen so the audience could verify the outcome. The dance could have 32 variations, according to the Cunningham office, and the chances of all the elements falling together exactly the same way twice are pretty feeble.

But even if they did, the dance wouldn’t be the same. Musicians in the pit make electronic modifications on pre-recorded scores. Movable sets may drift, the lighting may cloud over seconds later or earlier. The dancers, who are trained not to depend on musical cues, work with an acute sense of their individual timing within the ensemble. They gather and disperse at unforeseeable moments, watching one another intently for the first sign of a new impulse. Their dancing is charged with anticipation and intelligence.

Besides allowing the 84-year-old Cunningham to take an active part in the performance, staging a sample of the chance process gave the audience a hint of its complexity and the possibilities it opens up for a dance. The audience buzz was: what would Split Sides have looked like with the purplish-orange-yellow costumes against the sky-blue-pink backdrop instead of the grey-green? Cunningham dance does proclaim, usually in a more understated way, that there isn’t anything predestined or irrevocable about a piece of creative work. But there’s a deeper principle here, one on which he’s built a whole choreographic enterprise. If we’re alive to the present moment, we can never be bored. The dance we make/see tonight is the only dance there is, no more or less approximate than the dance we make/see tomorrow.

I saw Split Sides twice, with only one change in components, the costumes. The order of the two lighting plots may have switched too, from Thursday to Friday night, but I was less aware of that. The costumes either contrasted or blended with the two backdrops, Robert Heishman’s subdued field of brushed lines and pastel vertical streaks by Catherine Yass that resembled a Morris Louis veil painting or an astigmatic city skyline. Each dancer had his or her individual version of the black and white unitards and the sleeveless printed jumpsuits in the hot range of the spectrum.

In commissioning contemporary rock music, Cunningham addressed a new challenge. His experience of Radiohead and Sigur Rós was virtually nil before he encountered them. Mine too, but if I hadn’t been told they were rock bands, I wouldn’t have known. Jon Pareles in the New York Times identifies them as "art-rock," which I understand better in terms of today’s ever-expanding, genre-crossing, globalized culture. Both groups played live on opening night to sold-out houses full of their fans, but in subsequent performances their work was recorded and modified on the spot by Cunningham’s in-house musicians, Takehisa Kosugi, John King. and Andy Russ.

Both scores seemed influenced by the 40-year-old literature of electronic music initiated by John Cage and carried on, often in the background of Cunningham’s dances, by David Tudor, LaMonte Young, Stuart Dempster, Carl Stone, Paul Dresher, and an entire tribe of experimenters who’ve syncretized acoustic and electronic instruments, voices, the din of industry and the sounds of nature. Radiohead’s part was aggressively eclectic, using Western percussion, kalimba, voices, and calls from the barnyard. Sigur Rós’s segment seemed more instrumental, less intrusive.

The dance, or perhaps I should say the two versions of the dance I saw, came at us with an onslaught of interesting movement. It didn’t seem to have any particular beginning or ending, though it had lots of variety. The big and small groups, couples, and solos gave us a wonderfully diverse look at the company. Cunningham used to put several unrelated patterns in motion simultaneously; now there’s more quick, imprecise unison, where one dancer triggers off others in a wave of jumping, running, or direction changes. It’s as if, though still committed to defeating conventional dance’s patterning and repetition, he wanted to preserve the beauty or oddity of each move by offering us each dancer’s take on it. But at other times, like a duet of eccentric supports by Cedric Andrieux and Derry Swan, the movement invention was lavish and astonishing.

The slightly hoky chance demonstration for Split Sides relegated the other dance on the BAM program, Fluid Canvas, to near obscurity, but I liked it very much too. John King’s motor music score — real or sampled drilling, hammering, riveting, grinding, sheet-metal whanging, pile drivers, earth movers, and buzz saws — escalated from moderately loud to deafening; it reminded me of a high-rise under construction. There were moments of relief when keyboards picked out single notes that moved toward an uncertain melody. Like moments in the dance, they reminded me of how rare stillness is now.

Fluid Canvas, like Split Sides, used all 15 company members, and as they entered one at a time, filling the stage, clustering together, drawing apart, and leaving, I began to think about saturation and sparsity. For long sections, they stood with feet apart in stretched lunges and their arms crooked into strange angles, their torsos arcing back or hollowed over. For other long sections, they balanced in relevé, frighteningly steady, then came down into new shapes. Jonah Bokaer and Jeannie Steele danced together, touching lightly, lifting, running away, circling back — just the two of them filling the space as if they were a crowd.

RENNIE HARRIS is trying to translate hip-hop dance from a flashy street competition to a stage language with more to say. His newest and most successful venture so far, Facing Mekka, came to the Cutler Majestic last weekend in a Crash Arts presentation. What’s most original about Facing Mekka, I think, is the way Harris integrates the extraordinary talents of several specialists into a stream of hip-hop-based dancing by a company of 12 men and women. The solos can change, the way headliners do on a variety show, but the piece keeps its momentum and its expressive connections. Its basic identity isn’t as a set, repeatable piece of choreography but as an idea.

Accompanied by an on-stage combo of drums, keyboards, and singers, and backed by slides and films of vaguely ominous happenings (soldiers in battle, burning buildings, refugees, explosions, an urban crowd), the dancers cross the space in different size groups, usually separated by gender. The men do a few spectacular but showed-down breakdance moves — flips, headspins, unearthly no-handed rotations — but they’re almost reticent, as if they didn’t want to encourage the audience to scream. The women stomp and undulate, with a few virtuosic maneuvers of their own. For both men and women, Harris seems to have invented a whole traveling vocabulary that moves along the floor.

The more specific, if not exactly literal, messages of the piece are delivered by the soloists. Philip Hamilton sings prayers and entreaties for peace. Tabla player Lenny Seidman builds a dense, driving rhythm out of tiny, almost primal flutters on the tuned Indian drums. Kenny Muhammed retrieves the high-tech hoots, wheezes, thuds, and rhythmic clamor of an accomplished DJ, producing all these sounds and more with his own voice and body. Erica Bowen dances a solo of fast shakes and shimmies that might be sobs, her body heaving and contracting until she’s kneeling in a prolonged backbend. When she finally sinks to the floor, she still seems defiant.

Hovering over all this action, stumbling through the dances, like a ghost or a griot or a sinister memory, is Rennie Harris. He hides his face with long dreadlocks, hunches his shoulders, scuffs his feet when he walks. His disembodied arms snake out. His torso makes small spastic tremors. Finally he appears when all the other dancers are gone and dances a long solo in which his whole body seems to be coming apart. He screams, clutches the air, shakes his dreads, pops his arms, his shoulders, his neck. He could be a junky or a spirit preparing to leave the earth. A scrim descends in front of him. In a blue light he wails frantically, then subsides into quiet pleading.

Issue Date: October 24 - 30, 2003
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