Merce Cunningham Dance Company
by Heather Desaulniers
Sunday, November 9th, 2008 -- Craneway Pavilion, Ford Point, Richmond, California
Merce Cunningham is a conceptual genius. Concepts are his thing; his talent and intellect in this arena unrivalled. He summons ideas and is able to develop them choreographically, offering a complex consciousness to the audience. The result is ripe with intensity and honesty, having been diligently examined and investigated through his process. In his recent site-specific work, “The Craneway Event” in Richmond, California, Cunningham took a single idea and instilled it into every aspect of the performance. The focus this time was transitional space, and the depth of his vision was transcendent.
Positions are crucial to dance. From the moment you walk into any dance class, you are bombarded with positions: positions of the arms, positions of the feet, placement of the head, facing of the body. But so often what is missing from your education is the crucial focus on the space between positions. The “in between” provides the true thrill of dance. The final pose is nothing when compared with how the dancer got there.
Cunningham understands this better than any other modern choreographer right now. In “The Craneway Event,” the dancers were constantly going somewhere; their bodies never stopping. The movement was always alive with continuous transitional energy. One of the best examples of this was Cunningham’s use of rélévé long. The rélévé long is like a slow grand battement, where a straight leg is lifted up directly from the floor, to the front, side or back. When performed with proper attention to the movement’s transitive nature, you can see the foot guiding the whole leg through a slow, careful arc in space, and the energy moving outward beyond the point of the foot. The movement appears elastic and infinite. Cunningham’s choreography was full of these melty, stretchy, sinuous motifs that achieved the unusual condition of clarity in shape combined with clarity in transition.
His fascination with the transitive did not end with the choreography; it was present in every aspect of the piece. The performance space itself was transitional with three connected stages spread across the enormous warehouse. This placed the dancers in transition. They would perform in one section of the work and then move on to be a part of another segment in another space. The audience too was transitioning because of these three attached yet spread-out stages. They walked around the performance space as the dance proceeded, and hopefully made some discoveries about their viewing habits. I noticed that when I see a piece on a traditional proscenium stage, I tend to focus in on one or two individuals and watch them the entire time. I found that this piece forced me to watch more of the dancers because I was moving and they were moving.
Cunningham’s dancers, artistic collaborators and administrative staff are blessed. They have been given the rare gift to bear witness to the process of an incredible artist. They get to see his initial idea explored and refined through choreography; they are truly watching something grow from its origin into what it will eventually become. I envy them.