Eleven dancers in white unitards with horizontal black strips at the top extending to gloved hands. In a dawn of pastel light, they hold a marvelous stillness. Four musicians play a minimalist John Cage score with a fragile, simple, ever-so-slow piano line and occasional extended single-high-pitch violin notes over the cascading micro-percussive tumbles of a tilted rainstick.
This is “Beach Birds,” dance as mindfulness. Merce Cunninghman’s serenely vital 1991 contemplation of avian and human presence is one of two works featured in a deeply satisfying Merce Cunningham at 100 program by the Compagnie Centre National de Danse Contemporaine-Angers, at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater through Saturday. The works are reconstructed here by the French company’s artistic director, Robert Swinston, who was a Cunningham dancer and protégé. Swinston’s dancers are strong and have marvelous techniques, but they are a troupe in a deep sense, superb artists in profound communion with each other and their purpose.
In “Beach Birds,” amid the ensemble as a whole, they work in groups of twos, threes, and fours. Couples face off in brief, gently suspenseful, playful, competitive, or sensualized partnerships. There are slow rotations, deep arabesques, impulsive leaps, bold extensions, effortful lateral jumps in fourth position. Turned out ballet legs with contemporary arrow or scoop arms. Diagonals of torso and head, faces vigilant.
Light shifts, ultimately, to a mellow dusk. The creatures remain — graceful and strange.
Merce Cunningham at 100 closes October 5, 2019. Details and tickets
Much has been made of the hyper-intentional chaos of Cunningham’s choreography. He employed I Ching randomness principles, coin tosses, and computer programs in deconstructing his dances in the process of constructing them. This was reflected in the work of his work and life partner, Cage, as well.
But as with abstract expressionism, the lack of a conventional story or program does not equal the lack of a mood or experience. Sometimes quite the opposite, as with “Beach Birds,” which glows with an appreciation of our elemental, observational, biological beast-selves. Psychology demonstrates that human beings project faces, stories, and motives on randomized sensory input. That leads to crackpot political conspiracy theories. But it also leads to gloriously vivid emotional and associative responses to a Pollock canvas or a Cunningham dance.
All the more so in the post-intermission work, the indelibly powerful “BIPED.” This 1999 collaboration between Cunningham, composer Gavin Bryars, artists and animators Shelly Eshkar and Paul Kaiser, and costumer Suzanne Gallo is a dance-theatrical immersion in the most innovative sense.
The 15 dancers wear sleek, reflective, metallic, tank-topped one-piece costumes that highlight the gorgeous muscularity and line of their movements. They perform behind a scrim and in front of a black background with curtained booths that give the illusion that they emerge from and disappear into nowhere.
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Projected on the scrim are animated abstractions and geometries — lines, shapes, dots, and quivering, bending, mysterious ideograms. Then giant abstracted motion-capture dancer figures join this enticing cosmos like movement studies leaping off a draftsman’s sketchbook. It’s as if the projected figures are gods or notions the real dancers below them conjure and pay homage to. Sometimes the vertical lines or increasingly spaced dots seem to expand, constrain, or even elevate the stage. Sometimes the vertical lines seem to make it spin.
The synth and string musical score — combined recorded and live performance — has arpeggiated violin sequences that bring a classical cadence to the decidedly modern tonalities. Coupled with the visual feast before us, we are witnessing, it might appear, a rousing rite of futuro-paganism. But then the score becomes more chordal and romantic, even as it keeps its partially synthetic instrumentation, and the spectacle feels more tender, vulnerable, organic.
The movements begin with that same combination of ballet legs and modern torso and upper body that we saw in “Beach Birds.” But later the legwork transitions sometimes to more parallels, the movement quickening now and then into greater group and individual tumult, like molecules in ambivalent interaction as heat rises.
We become attached to this strange shiny inspired tribe of intergalactic bohemians from another world, another time.
The Cunningham company is no more. It disbanded in 2011. But thanks to Swinston and his marvelous dancers, on the centenary of his birth Cunningham’s pioneering artistic spirit lives on.
Merce Cunningham at 100: “Beach Birds” and “Biped,” choreographed by Merce Cunningham, reconstructed by Robert Swinston. Music by John Cage. Dancers in “Beach Birds”: Marion Baudinaud, Antonin Chediny, Matthieu Chayrigues, Anna Chirescu, Pierre Guilbault, Gianni Joseph, Haruka Miyamoto, Catarina Pernao, Flora Rogeboz, Carlo Schiavo, Claire Seigle-Goujon. Musicians: Gavin Bryars, Morgan Gott, Audrey Riley, James Woodrow. Produced by Compagnie Centre National de Danse Contemporaine-Angers. Presented at The Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Alexander C. Kafka.
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