Review: Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Merce Circus at Stratford Circus

Performance: 1 & 2 October 2011
Reviewed by Lise Smith - Sunday 2 October 2011

Merce Cunningham Company 'Square Game' Stratford Circus, 1 & 2 October. Photos: Anna Finke.

Reviewed: 1 October

Casual passers-by walking past Stratford Circus on Saturday night were arrested by a ten-foot tall film projection of Merce Cunningham’s popular 1991 piece Beach Birds on the wall opposite. Love it or hate it, there’s something uniquely mesmerising about Cunningham’s signature combination of fine-honed bodies and technical precision with Zen-like chance procedures and the apparent randomness of events onstage. This weekend, Stratford Circus celebrated both aspects of Cunningham’s legacy by filling the building with a series of works and artefacts, which viewers were invited to explore and experience using their own set of chance operations.

The centrepiece – and most conventional performance element – of Merce Circus was the company showing of Squaregame, an ensemble work from 1976. The piece reveals the choreographer in playful mood; on a white square of dance flooring, the dancers explode into a frenzy of rapid twists, tilts and turns, skipping lightly across the stage and appearing unexpectedly from behind what look like sacks of ballast. Those sacks are sat on, tossed around, and at one point used by a dancer to bounce across stage like a child on a space hopper.

A softer moment finds Rashaun Mitchell and Andrea Weber balancing tentatively on demi-pointe for what seems like uncomfortably long, sending trembling knees to the right and left with deliberation until Weber curves sensuously back over Mitchell’s supporting torso.Takehisa Kosugi’s avant-garde score, more melodious perhaps than some of the company’s other soundtracks with its synthesised strings and wavelike ambience, is made extra-special by the 73-year old composer’s presence in the sound booth playing the score live.

As is common in Cunningham’s works, the dancers represent only themselves – dressed in blue and grey rehearsal clothes, they cut and step around the stage in groups of twos and threes, erupting into bursts of unison before falling again into individual movement patterns all based on that distinctive technique. Squaregame‘s title is perfectly suggestive of the piece’s form and content: it’s a dance played like a game, the dancers proceeding from corner to corner with bison leaps and tricky triplets, and it’s shaped like a square. No narrative, no psychology, just the Cunningham dancers doing what they do best.

After the performance comes a chance for members of the audience (selected, naturally, by a chance procedure involving coloured wristbands) to learn a piece of repertory with Director of Choreography Robert Swinston. Field Dances (1963), described by Cunningham as “a dance for x dancers performed for x minutes” was inspired by children playing outside in Colorado, reflecting the choreographer’s interest in presenting all forms of movement as dance.

In the main theatre, meanwhile, another group of audience members gets to create their own dance by chance in the Move Cubes workshop, led by company Executive Director Trevor Carlson and Company Manager Kevin Taylor. One set of dice lists possible actions including walk, twist, fall and jump; another set of plain dice are used to choose anything from the length of time a movement is performed to the number of people performing it and its placement on stage.

The random fall of the dice inspire uncommon movement choices and unexpected connections – my partner and I have a great time putting together a short sequence of taps, nods and balances that we probably wouldn’t have otherwise chosen. I don’t know if the end result is a work of genius or madness, but it’s tremendous fun to make and perform and Trevor seems to like it well enough.

Elsewhere in the building are more film screenings of company tour diaries, early experiments with blue-screen (Cunningham was always interested in the creative uses of film and technology), interviews and rehearsals, and a music concert by Tekahisa Kosugi with electronic composers David Behrmann and Jesse Stiles. Archivist and Cunningham expert David Vaughan invites viewers to investigate company artefacts and rifle through his index cards, answering questions about the choreographer and company.

Downstairs in the foyer is a looped screening of five short filmed works by East London Dance associate artists Tony Adigun, Annie-Lunette Deakin-Foster, Simeon Qysea, Alesandra Seutin and Rosie Whitney-Fish. With movement styles from pulsating Africanistic dance to funky Hip-hop, the five artists explore Cunningham’s ideas and working methods to produce five distinct homages to the man.

Merce Circus is more than just a performance showcase for Cunningham’s work: it’s a very genuine, enlightening and above all fun insight into the processes and practice of the legendary choreographer. My only disappointment is that there’s no chance of it returning.

Part of Dance Umbrella 2011.
Merce Cunningham Dance Company are at the Barbican Theatre, 5 – 8 October.
(Last ever UK performances of the company – who disband on 31 December 2011, in accordance with Cunningham’s wishes) **”“:

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