Merce Cunningham Dance Company
by Heather Desaulniers
Friday, November 14th, 2008 -- Zellerbach Hall, University of California, Berkeley
The incorporation of chance procedures into finished choreography is fascinating. In classical ballet, virtually nothing is left to chance and dancers are typically discouraged from making choreographic decisions or contributions. Coming from that world, it is hard for me to imagine dances composed of both set material and the unplanned. But like most things unfamiliar, it only takes seeing it done well once to realize that it is possible and it can work. Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s performance of “eyeSpace (2007)” confirmed that chance can be an integral tool in the construction of a piece. I think this was the first time that I could actually identify the unintended elements in the finished work.
“eyeSpace (2007)” was constructed like the theme and variation form in music. Cunningham had numerous set choreographic motifs (the themes) and then altered them in several different ways (the variations). It was in these variations where his commitment to chance shone through. One of the first alterations was a simple directional shift. Several sections of the piece were performed by trios of dancers who executed the same steps, but at different facings: directly front, towards the back or on a diagonal. This created a visual perspective that would not have been present if all the dancers had been facing one direction.
Cunningham also experimented with accent, number and tempo. In the same choreographic sequence, one dancer accented the position of an arm, while another emphasized a leg movement. With number, one might perform three leg lifts before moving on, while the next dancer might only do one prior to his/her next movement. There were also differences in tempo. One performer went through a sequence as slow as they possibly could at the same time as a second moved through the same section at moderate speed while a third, at a brisk allegro. The central idea of the motif was the stabilizing factor while the chance options provided the variations.
Observations, like those above, may not seem like analysis, but in this case they are. Much of what was recognized was likely a result of chance procedures in choreography. Perhaps Cunningham gave his company some set movements and then had them try these movements at different intervals, different speeds, and different directions. The fact that this was visible in the finished work is important. It means that the use of chance procedure can be noticed even outside of the studio. It is not only a process, but also a result.
Although I recognize the effectiveness of Cunningham’s chance procedures in “eyeSpace (2007),” the piece also provoked a question that I think will affect how I view choreography. Does the origin of movement really matter? Would it have been possible for Cunningham to set this work from beginning to end without the use of chance? What if he reached the same result, but used an entirely different process? Does it really make a difference? This is an enormous question in dance and I don’t know if there is an answer. But, it is interesting to consider.