Saturday night, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company's Legacy Tour came through Tucson with an evening of three dances spanning nearly fifty Cunningham's creative choreography. Let me state at the outset that I don't follow contemporary dance with anywhere near the avidity with which I approach music, so I don't have the vocabulary or experience to say much technically about the dances. My primary interest was that Cunningham was Cage's life partner, and Cage was the company's first Musical Director, and remained a Musical Advisor to Cunningham's troupe from its inception until his death in 1992. Seeing the dance, however, opened up a whole side of Cage that I had never seen before. I was completely entranced and exhilirated by the three dances that the group performed last night, and I feel very fortunate to have attended this glorious performance.
The opener was 2007's XOVER (pronounced 'Crossover'), one of Cunningham's last creations, set to the only Cage music we heard all evening. From the orchestra pit, John King, Takehisa Kosugi, and Jesse Stiles each performed a version of Fontana Mix on electronics. From stage left, Aurora Josephson performed her realization of Aria. Unfortunately I couldn't see what the electronics performers were doing, but Josephson was amazing, snatches of recitation in English, French, and Italian, bird calls, gargling, and who knows what else. I thought I heard Kosugi's violin in the mix, and several times orchestral and other recordings emerged from what was generally the same types of electronic noise that we hear on old Cage and Tudor recordings from the period. Sometimes the percussive attacks were quite loud, and sometimes I thought I heard some kind of tuned percussion instrument with a contact mic. The dancers were all dressed in white, and the background was a huge painting by Robert Rauschenberg, sort of geometric red rectangles with some fairly detailed sections, largely on a white background and a brightly lit stage. The choreography centered around two couples, whose actions were sometimes nearly identical to each other, and sometimes wildly divergent. And they would break off into solos, or add several other dancers (there are a total of eleven dancers for this piece) into little set pieces. I was quite taken with the interplay between the music and the dance, which often were seemingly at odds with each other.
The second work was the earliest, Crises from 1960 with music from seven of Conlon Nancarrow's rhythm studies for player piano. Only five dancers here, dressed in red and orange against a black stage in another Rauschenberg design, and I continued to find the motions completely engrossing. Narrative dance pieces have never appealed to me, but these fluid movements seemed as little vignettes out of a continuous stream.
The sole work in the second half was BIPED, a 45-minute piece from 1999 with music by Gavin Bryars. The stage, like for Crises, is dark, but it looks like narrow beams of light ascend from floor to ceiling, not only in the back of the stage, but up front too. Then the ones in front fade in and out, and as the first few minutes pass by, the light on half the stage looks a little odd, then the columns in front start to move. It turns out there's a transparent screen at the front of the stage, and as the piece progresses, the projections become more elaborate. At first, the columns break off into lines, which in turn form colored geometric patterns. But then there are dancers, their bodies visible from outlines, like skeletons made from flames of light. Cunningham collaborated with Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar to create an animation technology that captured the dancers' movements, but not their physical appearance. And there are up to thirteen dancers on stage too, dressed in very strange shiny costumes that looked like some kind of plastic. At one point, some of the dancers donned opaque cloaks, which blurred their figures even more Bryars' music, for violin (Kosugi), cello (Loren Dempster) and electric guitar (King) was a full string sound, by far the most traditional music of the evening. I was surprised to see that there were only the three musicians for how orchestral they sounded. Bryars' description of the piece suggests that the other instruments I heard were pre-recorded.
The combination of the newest dance with 1960s-style electronic music which opened the concert may have disoriented my sense of chronology, but I could not detect any difference in Cunningham's choreography between the early and late works, the way Cage's music was completely different between the early live electronic music and the number pieces he composed in his last years. No doubt I was receptive to the dance because of Cunningham's place in contemporary music. There was certainly a spectacle quality, especially in BIPED with so much simultaneous activity. Perhaps I enjoyed it more than other modern dance companies because of the live performances of the music I enjoy. In any case, the performances touched the mysterious transcendance of the observer in mute wonder, a performance that I will always remember. The Cunningham Legacy Tour continues the rest of the year, in the US and abroad, and the group will disband after a New Year's Eve performance this year in New York. Complete details are available at the Merce Cunningham web site, and I cannot recommend it too highly.