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Merce Cunningham Dance Company

'eyeSpace,' 'Crises' and 'Xover'

by Carmel Morgan

December 12, 2008 -- The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Eisenhower Theater, Washington, DC

In a span of less than nine months, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company has appeared twice in Washington, DC.  In March 2008, the company performed three works, including the 2007 piece “eyeSpace” at DC’s new Sidney Harman Hall.  On December 12, 2008, the company returned to DC, this time performing as part of the Kennedy Center’s “Modern Masters” program, a series celebrating American modern dance.  Once again, the company performed “eyeSpace.”  However, changes to the music, décor, and costumes rendered the work practically unrecognizable.

Cunningham creates his dances in silence, so the choice of music is in some ways irrelevant.  In March 2008, audience members fumbled with tiny i-pod Shuffles, making haphazard self-adjustments to Mikel Rouse’s score.  The dancers in “eyeSpace” wore bright blue unitards and moved against a vivid backdrop of falling geometric figures by Henry Samelson.  The work then seemed displeasingly busy.

The December 2008 version of “eyeSpace,” in contrast, riveted.  A spectacular set by Daniel Arsham, titled “ODE/EON,” which resembled an old-style movie theater in 3-D complete with lights, and silvery unitards, also designed by Arsham, replaced the earlier circus colors.  In place of the pre-programmed i-pod selections, the music in December was David Behrman’s “Long Throw,” which mixed classical strains with hillbilly twangs.  If not for the identical name of the work, I would never have guessed I was viewing the same choreography.

The dancers did a lot of balancing on one foot, tottering against the gray theater façade.  They tipped way over with their arms spread out like airplane wings.  They dipped toward the floor like feeding chickens with their heads down.  Fragments of classical ballet caught my eye: lovely arabesques, knees drawn into passé, fantastic male jetes and sissons.  Bent appendages slowly straightened, heads tilted.  A grouping of dancers held invisible trays, their parallel palms face up, as if patiently waiting for someone to pluck the last hors d’oeuvre.

This time around, “eyeSpace” provoked a dream-like atmosphere, not a nightmare.  A uniform vocabulary glued the segments together.  Indeed, as the piece progressed the dancers engaged in an increasingly complex conversation with one another, and their limbs touched more frequently.  The result was pure enjoyment.

In “Crises,” a work from 1960, dancers wore unitards designed by Robert Rauschenberg (reconstructed by David Quinn) in vivid red, orange, and yellow.  Lively, daring player piano music by Conlon Nancarrow accompanied the piece.  A few dancers had matching colored elastic bands around their waists or arms, providing a means of entwining them with others.  Holley Farmer looked stunning in a duet in which she was tied to another dancer, her mid-arm bound to her partner’s wrist.  The pair humorously wriggled across the floor inchworm-style.  Dancers jiggled their shoulders with joy and playfully bunny-hopped offstage.  “Crises,” despite its foreboding title, delivered mainly fun and happiness.

“Xover,” another work choreographed in 2007, closed the program.  Rauschenberg designed the décor, a collage, and the costumes, snowy white unitards, just prior to his death in May 2008.  Objects from a construction site (a wooden orange and white striped barricade, a bicycle, a huge cement pipe) loomed larger than life behind the dancers, instilling a sense of adventure and also danger.  The music was John Cage’s “Aria” (Joan La Barbara singing phrases of mostly gobbledygook) and also his “Fontana Mix.”

“Xover” featured some interesting movement, including some especially nice duets and quartets, but the random phrases, croaks, and wheezes of Cage’s “Aria” proved to be off-putting and seemed to make the audience restless.  La Barbara could be seen generating a striking array of unusual sounds.  Her live performance of “Aria” proved to be a major distraction since she was at times more compelling to watch than the dancers.  “Xover” might benefit from a change of music and set, just as “eyeSpace” did.

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