Review: Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Programme 3: RainForest / BIPED at Barbican Theatre

Performance: 5 - 8 October 2011
Reviewed by Lise Smith - Monday 10 October 2011

Merce Cunningham Dance Company 'RainForest'
Photo: Tony Dougherty.

Reviewed: 8 October 2011

And so, with a final pair of performances at the Barbican Theatre in London, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company takes leave of the UK forever. A predictably full house settled in to the venue that has hosted the company so often over the last decade, to witness this closing of a lengthy and important chapter in dance history.

The programme opens with RainForest (1968), a piece which always owes as much to its Andy Warhol-designed floating set as it does to the dance material. As the curtain lifted on Saturday night, a number of silver pillow-shaped balloons made a break for freedom and lent an air of audience participation to the early part of the evening as punters played a distracting game of pass-the-props. The wayward, chaotically floating balloons dance their own ballet of chance, bobbing across pathways, deflected by jabbing elbows and flexing feet, and occasionally drifting off into the orchestra pit.

Behind this inflatable dance-by-chance is an enigmatic and somewhat psychedelic work, set to David Tudor’s electronic soundscape. It’s an odd sort of a rainforest, this one: bird calls, forest flutes and primal rumblings mingle with synthesised blips and the sounds of outer space. Likewise the six beige-clad dancers fuse animalistic prowling, suggestions of beating wings and reptilian hops, with otherworldly stillness and hyper-slow motion. The squawking soundtrack and stalking, beastlike movement are not exactly representative of the Amazon jungle – the piece is far too strange and subtle for that – but as Cunningham pieces go it’s more directly suggestive of its title than most, and shows the choreographer in boldly experimental mode.

1999’s BIPED also has a distinctive set, this one digital rather than physical. As the company of thirteen dancers steps across the stage into a series of graceful balances, projected virtual dancers – filmed using motion capture technology – flicker across the gauze in front. Cunningham was a known for his interest in both digital and film technology, and the projections for this piece grew out of an earlier collaboration with the digital artists Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar, who provide the motion-capture animation for this work.

Light and video are used here to shape and sculpt the space as, behind the gauze, the dancers pass through it – there’s something delicate and enchanting about the interplay between real and virtual bodies, and the way that dancers appear and disappear in Aaron Copp’s playful lighting design of vanishing squares. Suzanne Gallo’s unashamedly 1990s-style costumes – holographic one-shouldered silver unitards – are of a piece with the lighting and animation, the light bouncing off the metallic fabric in the live movement just as it seems to glance off absent bodies in the projections.

Stylistically, BIPED reveals Cunningham at his most neoclassical – a melodic score by Gavin Bryars incorporates live strings and harp sounds, and the movement is full of little beaten steps, balletic leaps and long-limbed arabesques. The dancers are all individually strong and shine in solo sections and moments of contrast. However, where in *_Squaregame_*last weekend the company had fallen easily into unerring synchrony, in this performance the ensemble sections appeared decidedly off-time. Legs passed to arabesque at different speeds, heads rolled at different times, and it was sometimes hard to determine whether what we were looking at was sloppy unison or sloppy canon.

I’m sorry that this lack of precision in certain sections will be part of my final memory of the Cunningham company in the UK; but even with these imperfections, BIPED‘s inventiveness, linear purity, grand scale and moments of shimmering beauty make a more than fitting elegy for the great choreographer.

The company will now return to the States for the final two months of its legacy tour, bowing out on December 31 in New York. After 58 years, it seems strange to think of a world without the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, but thanks to the efforts of those involved in the legacy plan we’re almost certainly saying farewell and not goodbye to Cunningham’s choreography – there’s even a chance to catch RainForest in London next month (Rambert Dance Company at Sadler’s Wells, 15 – 19 November:). Here’s to the next chapter.

Part of Dance Umbrella 2011
more programme details **”“:

Merce Circus review
Programme 1 reviews

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