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Jack Anderson

City Living, Cunningham Style


Merce Cunningham's "eyeSpace". Photo by Anna Finke

Merce Cunningham Dance Company
Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue at 19th Street, Chelsea
Oct. 10-15, 2006
Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., $44
Tickets: (212) 242-0800 or www.joyce.org
Reviewed by Jack Anderson, Oct. 13, 2006

First, a confession: I don't own an iPod, Walkman, or cellphone. I’m not against them. I simply haven't felt a need to employ them for instruction, assistance, or amusement. So I was intrigued by announcements that audiences would use iPods to hear Mikel Rouse’s score for Merce Cunningham's new "eyeSpace."

The company assured dancegoers without iPods that they could be borrowed from the theater staff. Some mystification ensued. On opening night, people around me kept wondering when the iPod time would come. "It’s got to be the first dance," an assured voice in my vicinity proclaimed. Wrong. Before the second dance, a few eager people resumed fussing with the technology. Wrong again.

It was “eyeSpace,” the evening's last dance, that had the iPods. And it was fun. According to the company, because Rouse's complete score lasts 60 minutes and the dance lasts only 20, no one can hear the entire composition at any one performance. Moreover, setting the iPod on "shuffle" means that the device will randomly order the sections of the score. So I have no idea if I heard anything that anyone else did.

I did hear drumming, vocalisms of various kinds, bits of rock music, muffled mutterings about (I think) the Gaza Strip, and street noises. Thinking that it might be fascinating to watch part of the dance in silence, I removed the earphones. To my surprise, the theater was flooded with sounds, which makes me wonder if "eyeSpace" could be offered on occasions when no iPods are available.

Howard Samelson, the designer, set dancers in various shades of blue moving against a red backdrop filled with jutting blue lines. Much of the choreography emphasized steady balances, and dancers frequently gathered in clusters, then scattered across the stage. Because "eyeSpace" opened with a quartet and ended with two people dancing, and the groups that assembled and dispersed were small, it came as a surprise to realize that the piece required twelve dancers, all passing like people on a street.

Cunningham likes viewers to interpret his works as they wish. To fantasize on my own, "eyeSpace" struck me as a city dance, perhaps a dance evoking a city summer. Its dancers assembling and dispersing amiably and its layers of sound evoked warm summer nights when people just come and go while open windows send down bits of recordings and radio and television shows.

The choreographic patterns in some Cunningham dances have been rightly likened to such things in nature as the ebb and flow of waves or the flights of birds. But certain dances seem decidedly urban, including all those at the Joyce.

"Scenario Minevent," a reworking of a piece from 1997, immediately attracts attention with the way Rei Kawakubu's costumes sprout bizarre lumps and bulges. So costumed, everyone in the cast looks in need of dieting or exercise. Yet because they move assuredly to Takehisa Kosugi's music with both restless rushes and slow-motion walks, the dance suggests how people of all shapes and sizes go about the streets.

"Crises," a work of 1960 revived this season, has sometimes been considered harsh in tone. I never found it so in the past, and I did not find it so now. What has always impressed me is its sense of alertness and wariness. Its five dancers exist in a state of perpetual expectancy, and Rashaun Mitchell stalks through Cunningham's old role, creating a powerful tension. The action, to player-piano music by Conlon Nancarrow, implies that, in this dance and in many streets, the unknown may always be lurking.

One of the oddities of both "Crises" and my memories of it is the way a dancer sometimes holds on to someone else by slipping hands into an elastic band on the other's costume. I had remembered this occurring more often and more obviously than it did at the Joyce. But when I mentioned this to David Vaughan, the company's archivist, he assured me that the revival by Carolyn Brown and Carol Teitelbaum was done with the aid of a film, as well as the dancers' memories. And he pointed out that the first time one sees something unusual in a dance may in time make that thing loom larger in memory than it ever did on stage.

Cunningham's dances can challenge our powers of perception. Because I perceived, and possibly magnified, certain aspects of "Crises," I wonder how I shall remember "eyeSpace." Even when city streets do not alter architecturally, how they look in changing weathers may affect our reactions to them. So, too, Cunningham's dances may seem to alter in the changing weathers of our imaginations.

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