Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Merce Cunningham Dance Company: Or Another Reason To Pee My Pants

On January 20th I received an email from the Alabama Ballet. I usually only open emails from Alabama Ballet a few times a year (November, when they are gearing up for their December Nutcracker performances, and whenever I see that they are performing the work of a favorite choreographer…Balanchine, Tharp, Graham, etc.). The subject of this particular email was “A Special Offer on a Not-To-Miss Performance.” Normally I wouldn’t open such a non-specifically subjected email, but I did. And I must say that I am glad that I did. Contained therein was the following message:

“The Alabama Dance Council makes dance history by presenting Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) at the 2011 Alabama Dance Festival.

Co-presented by the Alabama Dance Council and the Alabama Ballet, Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s residency is part of the company's final Legacy Tour and their first and only performance in Alabama. It is the last opportunity to see Merce Cunningham’s work performed by the dancers he personally trained.

Guided by Merce Cunningham’s radical approach to space, time and technology, the Company has forged a distinctive style, reflecting Cunningham’s technique and illuminating the near limitless possibility for human movement. For more than fifty years, MCDC’s collaborations with groundbreaking artists from all disciplines have redefined the way audiences experience the visual and performing arts.”

The email ended with the urgent, “Don't miss out on dance history in the making!”

Merce Cunningham Dance Company, I pondered…THE Merce Cunningham Dance Company (my brain screamed)?!? I found that I suddenly couldn’t breathe. My stomach was in knots. I wanted tickets. I wanted tickets right then. I wanted tickets right then, before they sold out (because I knew that all of the Merce Cunningham fans in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Tennessee would unite together into an impenetrable ticket-buying force that would prevent me from having what was rightly mine)! But the performance was on the Friday night before the Bamacross Gadsden weekend. Slim and I were going to be terribly busy that weekend (and unbeknownst to us, we would have other, more important fish to fry the week of the performance when a health issue cropped up unexpectedly within the family nucleus). Could we possibly swing a trip to Birmingham to see one of the last performances of a dance company whose founder was one of my all-time-favorite modern choreographers? Of that, I was not sure.

I hurriedly forwarded the Alabama Ballet email to Eric with a personal message:
EEEEEEKKKKKK! Please tell me we don't have anything planned that night!
Eric: I don't think we have anything.
Me: OMG! I'm going to check on the price of tickets. I may pee on myself before I am able to though...
Eric: If tickets aren't ridiculous I'll help pay. Actually even if there are...(awww…isn’t that sweet of him?)

At this point, I was already online, pricing out the tickets, and checking the seating that was still available. I began to G-chat Eric while I was checking out the tickets so that I could communicate faster with him. I began furiously entering all of my credit card information, billing information, favorite foods and colors…everything they asked! I typed information as if my life depended upon it! And, as I typed, I kept hearing the bong of the G-chat doorbell, indicating that Eric was trying to reach me…I thought my heart was going to explode…but not before I peed on myself. And then, we had tickets! Orchestra seating, on the floor. And they had only cost $16 each. I was shaking, I was so excited. I, for one, was NOT going to miss out on dance history in the making! And, by gosh, neither was Eric!

Now, let me take a moment to fill you in on Merce Cunningham, should you need some filling in (my explanation is not academic in the least…it is merely information that I have stored away about an individual whom I have admired over the years). Merce Cunningham was a very unique pioneer in modern American dance/choreography whose fruitful and long-lived career was made even more interesting by his domestic/professional partnership with equally unique American composer John Cage. Cunningham’s choreography was, in addition to many things, an experiment in absence and presence; Cage’s music was an experiment in the “activity of sound,” the releasing of sound…from just about anything (I know a muralist who played a trashcan lid for one of Cage’s recordings). Cunningham and Cage often created their collaborative works independent of one another, with Cunningham creating choreography for Cage’s compositions without hearing Cage’s music. It worked. I know it worked, because I saw a perfect example of their collaboration Friday night…Xover.

Xover was performed by approximately fifteen people: eleven dancers, one singer (positioned on a side arm of the stage), and three musicians (in the orchestra pit). Cage’s composition (Fontana Mix with Aria) was performed via computers by the three musicians (one who could have been Merce Cunningham’s twin brother, if he’d had a twin brother), and vocally by the rather operatic chanteuse Aurora Josephson. It is difficult to describe the music, as it really needs to be experienced in order to get the full effect…Ms. Josephson sang the Aria, the musicians played the Fontana Mix through their computers, and the dancers athletically danced. At times, Ms. Josephson would create additional percussion through the gargling of water, the winding and springing of a jack-in-the-box, and the ringing of a bicycle bell. The music and the choreography meshed; concurrently, the music and the choreography stood apart. Moments of silence were filled with perfectly performed dance sequences. The silence was part of the music. It was Cunningham and Cage in its purest form.

The second performance was a more traditional modern dance piece called Crises. Crises was performed to Nancarrow’s Rhythm Studies for Player Piano (various numbers), and had a bit of a rag-time feel to it. It was an interesting piece, accessorized by fog/smoke, with dancers who made me think of flames that were attracting each other. I had to look the piece up on the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s website because I was afraid that I totally missed any meaning. Crises is described as a “dramatic… dance concerned with decisive moments in the relationship between a man and four women.” Hmmm…I suppose I wasn’t completely off the mark by thinking that the dancers were flames attracting each other…

Dance history in the making. That’s exactly what it was. When I read of Merce Cunningham’s passing in the July 27, 2009 edition of the New York Times I lamented the loss of such a great dancer and choreographer. I felt robbed of ever having the chance to see his work. I briefly lectured on his work last summer during my Ballet for the Uncoordinated class, explaining his importance to the world of dance, and his avant-garde style. I even mentioned that his and Cage’s collaborations were often parodied when people went to the trouble to parody modern dance. Then I went on to explain to my students that Mr. Cunningham had left specific orders upon his death that his dance company dissolve, yet I had heard word of a few Central Park performances (a friend and poet who lives in Brooklyn happened upon one of the performances on a beautiful afternoon). I never dreamed that a tribute tour would come to Alabama. Good and unexpected things happen…sometimes disguised in the form of an unspecific subject line of an email.

Listening to: Blind Pilot & Radiohead. I think a Merce Cunningham/Radiohead collaboration would’ve been pretty darn awesome.


Eric Wright said...

There is something beautiful about the symmetry- in the seemingly random way you heard about the performance - and the seeming randomness of the performance itself.

It was an incredible show and I am so glad to have seen the company before it disbands for good.

La Petit Rouge said...

You know, that is so true! I hadn't associated the randomness of hearing about the performance with the chance of the performance itself. Thank you for helping me see that...