Barbican Theatre, London
April 16, 2019
On what would have been Merce Cunningham’s 100th birthday, 25 dancers gathered on the Barbican Theatre stage. Their names read like a capsule ‘who’s-who’ of contemporary dance: among them Siobhan Davies, Michael Nunn and Jonathan Goddard; plus some from the ballet world including Francesca Hayward and Sophie Martin.
All acknowledge Cunningham as an influence and inspiration. Despite many having never met or worked with him in his lifetime, they have collaborated with ex-company members to stage this ambitious, demanding collage of his work. In a fitting tribute to Cunningham’s ceaseless exploration of new methods and forms for his dance works, the evening transformed solos made between 1956 and 2009 into an original ensemble piece, and gifts a legacy to a new and diverse group of performers.
Costumed in a range of sherbet-coloured unitards, the ensemble stands poised, silent. Then they shift, exiting the stage like a flock of birds, leaving just one. The lone dancer takes a deep plie in parallel, then extends his leg high to the side. Slowly he tilts his body forward as if hugging a ball. Cunningham famously rolled dice, and later used a computer program to generate combinations of phrases, and the results often made for extremely demanding material on a human body. The dancer’s thighs bulge as he suspends his leg extension, before dropping into a deep chassé, then exploding upward like a leaping firework.
The clean, formal quality to the choreography often serves to highlight how human and unique each of the dancers is. Goddard lurches like a stroppy puppet, raising his leg in a series of retirés with awkwardly flexed feet. In the background, Hayward jetés and spins like a top skater. Everywhere there are shapes and geometric lines which seem to defy human anatomy. These are echoed in projected visuals which describe geometry puzzles and mechanical instructions.
But there is softness too, notably from Davies who is a beguiling, stately presence. In her first solo she bows forward as she processes across the back of the space, her arms curving and offering. Later she reappears with a series of light, floating arm phrases. She taps her wrists together, then wafts her arms behind her, as if casting something away.
Humour comes from occasional bizarre costumes, as when a dancer struggles in a plastic sleeping bag, or performs bolshy jumps with tin cans rattling around his legs. In another conspicuous costume of white overalls, a perfectly cast Goddard performs the vaudeville-style soft shoe shuffle from 1958’s Antic Meet. All louche limbs and fast footwork, he arches an eyebrow as he mimes tipping his hat.
The stage picture pulses continually with physical life in flux throughout the 90-minute performance. Endlessly shifting floor-patterns, fluttering hands, dancers making contact with a glance or a breath. The variety of textures and dynamics are complimented by the soundscape, which features radio-static, zither and plucked piano strings among a host of other unusual resonant sounds. Faithful to Cunningham’s methods again, the dancers rehearse to counts, and hear the accompaniment for the first time during this performance.
Towards the end there was a long, still silence in which the cast seemed suspended in deep thought, almost certainly focused on the internal rhythm of their dance. The audience too, felt deeply focused until at last the lights came down, and they erupted into applause. The dancers take bow after bow.
Thank you Merce, and happy birthday.
Night of 100 solos: a centennial event was a one-off series of three performances in London, New York and Los Angeles. All can be watched in full at www.mercecunningham.org.