Review: Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Programme 1 – Crises/Xover/Biped at Barbican

Performance: 30 Sep - 4 Oct 08
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 1 October 2008

30 September 2008

Although many mistakenly thought it had opened the night before with De Keersmaeker’s tribute to Steve Reich at Sadler’s Wells, Dance Umbrella, the major London contemporary dance festival now in its 30th year, actually opened with this triptych of work by Merce Cunningham, spread over 50 years from his prolific dance output. There has been a long association between Cunningham and DU, reaching back to 1989 and Cunningham’s Dance Company has been a regular visitor throughout this decade, memorably with the recreation of ‘Ocean’ at the Roundhouse in 2006.

There are so many ideas and themes in the work of Cunningham and his collaborators, usually with their contributions developed independently of one another. This disparity of thought is glued together with an unmistakeable range of movement in Cunningham’s unique idiom of spinning modern interpretations from a classical base. Although it is always watchable (albeit sometimes with the sound turned off) I find his work either fits exactly into its context and is completely mesmerising, or it misses the mark altogether and becomes incomprehensible. Never dull but sometimes irritating.

This confusion of response permeated the first programme, which ranged from the sublime (*Biped*) to the ridiculous (*Xover*). The opening work was a revival of Crises – made originally in 1960, which never quite made it to the heady heights of the hypnotic power of Cunningham’s best work; it has many, beautiful moments – tiny gems of movement – that sit within an overall context that doesn’t connect them, like a cluster of lustrous pearls without their string.

The newest work, Xover, was first performed a year ago and – call me a barbarian, if you will – I just don’t associate in any way with the aural nonsense that comprises the pairing of John Cage’s *Aria* and *Fontana Mix*. One could admire the vocal dexterity of Aria’s performer, Joan La Barbara, whose voice randomly fires out puppy barks, owl hoots, squeaks, fast garbled language of usually indeterminate origin and other entirely banal utterances. Situated at the side of the stage, she frequently became a distraction to the dance. The whole, long episode was, for me at least, a performance equivalent of The Emperor’s New Clothes: it is very possible that there were gems within the movement sequence but saturated in the surround-sound of nonsense noise, who could tell?

But, all is forgiven, because of *Biped*. Made in 1999 to Gavin Bryars gorgeous and haunting eponymous score, this was sheer dance heaven. A work, so beautifully constructed and so perfectly in tune with its costumes, music and Shelley Eshkar’s colourful, digital animation, portrayed on a fine mesh screen at front-of-stage. Thus the potential bad luck of 13 live dancers was off-set by the frequent appearance of “crayon-man”, being the multi-coloured transfer of distant movement (by dancers no longer in this work) into digital form. The trance-like state induced by the powerful flow of this work was such that I couldn’t bring myself to break the spell by clapping for several moments after the curtain came down. In creating such momentous work as this, a true artistic genius wins the right to deserve to fail from time to time.

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