Sadler’s Wells, London
November 7, 2019
Merce Cunningham aligned dance with the avant-garde as no one had done since the days of Diaghilev. Bristling with innovation, his ‘events’ combined the latest in dance, music and art. It was the age of experimentation and Cunningham revelled in it. Viewing his work half a century on gives a different sort of pleasure. The revolutionary has been absorbed into the classical canon and the pleasure now comes from savouring the quality of a true class act.
Twenty-one dancers are listed and the dozen or so who carry the evening are world class. They tackle Cunningham’s finely tuned moves with mechanical precision, smoothing over the challenging transitions that define the style and making it all look as easy as a walk in the park. Within the abstraction there is a sense of shared ownership as dancers work in close harmony with a hint of irony occasionally spicing the blend.
Jeannie Steele, who staged the show has arranged material from the ten Cunningham works in the Rambert repertoire into a well structured seventy-minute performance. Solos are interspersed with groups in a constantly shifting mix of kaleidoscopic variety. Gerhard Richter’s designs, based on his series of paintings Cage (1) – (6), find their natural home in the company of Cunningham dancers. His backdrop of panels makes for easy entrances and exits and complements the dance as the surfaces take on new expression in the changing lights. A bleak monochrome morphs into a richly embroidered facade or takes on the warmth of burnished gold as the moment requires while his serviceable unitards sport classy prints.
The music composed by Philip Selway, Adem Ilhan and Quinta, and performed by Selway and Quinta with Adrian Utley goes its own way in the autonomous manner of Events. The opening beats, harshly spat out, gradually warm and fill with sound; sometimes matching the dance dynamics but always choosing their own way.
A pre-show pop-up performance, Counterpoint, is a digital art installation transforming movements into myriad laser images. Performed on the mezzanine, it was intriguing to watch and a tribute to Cunningham who so eagerly embraced and exploited technology.
While contemporary performances of Cunningham’s works cannot capture the excitement and unpredictability of the heady ’60s, this performance generated its own electricity. The Rambert Event is a different animal and offers one of the best evenings of contemporary dance ever.