Review: Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Nearly Ninety at Barbican Theatre

Performance: 26 = 30 October 2010
Reviewed by Sam Gauntlett - Friday 29 October 2010

Merce Cunningham Dance Company 'Nearly Ninety'
Photo: Stephanie Berger.

Reviewed: 26 October 2010

*Nearly Ninety**, Merce Cunningham’s* final work, premiered in New York on his 90th birthday, just months before his death. Dancers in the company who were trained personally by the man himself are now taking the piece, alongside other works, on a final two year legacy tour, before the 57 year old company disbands – all part of Cunningham’s legacy plan for the “preservation (of his) artistic vision”. That may seem a contradiction in terms, but the detailed plan was formulated by the late iconic contemporary choreographer in his final years and the unique opportunity to be a part of dance history creates a palpable buzz amongst the excited audience on the opening night of this five day run at the Barbican Theatre.

An imposing architectural steel sculpture, designed by award-winning Italian architect Benedetta Tagliabue, is the focal point for the piece, at first only hinted at by silhouettes cast from behind a screen and later revealed in all its spiralling, meccano-like glory. As the piece develops, it is clear that the metal cage, with its four floors and resident live musicians is the throbbing heart and soul of Nearly Ninety; the dancers cold cogs that have spilled from its belly, or perhaps emanating from somewhere entirely separate. And a feeling of separation and disjointedness is the very essence of this challenging work, with the choreography and musical score, for the most part subverting our expectations: during a noisy and rumbling crescendo, the performers move with slow, controlled precision, whilst a more frenetic section is accompanied by silence. Cunningham’s working methods served to contrive this incongruousness: when creating a new piece, he would engage a composer to work entirely independently from himself and would only bring the music and choreography together at the very end of the creative process.

Following an uncomfortably long, discordant musical introduction, the performers materialise and disappear in a random smattering, clothed in unforgiving white and black pop-art style catsuits. Like particles destined to connect, affect one another, then separate, they approach each another, zig-zagging the stage. With blank, expressionless faces, couples execute intertwined geometric shapes. The duets become solos, which morph into trios, with two men and a woman exploring slow, deliberate cause and effect, responding to one another’s placings, whilst blue and green structural projections serve as a backdrop and painfully loud white noise seems to offer some kind of explanation. The overall effect is disquieting, like a fevered nightmare or Dadaist dream.

The musical score, composed by John Paul Jones, Takehisa Kosugi and Sonic Youth, seems improvised and random; alongside drums, guitar and keyboard, a collage of enigmatic noises feed the imagination: whale song in a black bottomless sea, electronic bleeps of a computer talking to its self and a lone wolf crying on an icy night. We are even shown a projection of a metal tray being tilted this way and that in order to move a handful of screws around, creating a strange, hollow echoing. Apart from this moment, which connects visual and sound, video projections, the work of Franc Aleu, also exist as an independent entity and for the most part appear to have no bearing on the other elements of the work: a droplet falling into a body of water causing ever decreasing circles, legs dancing upside down and a spiralling structure, like a strand of DNA tumbling in the darkness. But perhaps structure and shape is the one uniting element in Nearly Ninety: the towering sculpture in the middle of the stage, the passage of time marked by challenging noises, punctuated by periods of silence and the dispassionate, yet skilfully athletic dancers using one another’s bodies to create new shapes. The most striking moments are when all of the performers are on stage, encouraging the eye to ramble over interesting pattern and form. In one stand out moment, they all face front on the balls of their feet and bend sharply sideways like delicate seedlings searching for sunlight.

One would expect a Cunningham piece to be non-narrative and Nearly Ninety is no exception, but the jarring elements of the performance make it very hard work. The score is often rib-shaking and the projections sometimes a distraction, but the dancers are possessed of an incredible strength and discipline and make the challenging choreography look easy. The surreal and emotionless nature of Cunningham’s work won’t be to everyone’s taste, but the uniqueness of his vision makes the spectator experience, like the man himself, unforgettable.

Part of Dance Umbrella 2010
5 – 30 October 2010 **”“:

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