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Arts Mixtape

Philip W. Sandstrom

4 Walls/Doubletoss Interludes

Philip Sandstrom interviewed Robert Swinston, Artistic Associate of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company about the creation of "4 Walls/Doubletoss Interludes." Esteemed Russian pianist Alexei Lubimov gave the Moscow premieres of several works by John Cage in the 1960s. He has since performed an extensive repertoire on stages throughout the world, ranging from Lincoln Center to the Salzburg Festival. In this program, Lubimov plays Cage’s Four Walls [1944] with a new staging of Merce Cunningham’s Doubletoss [1993], arranged by Robert Swinston. Performed by former Merce Cunningham dancers, "4 Walls/Doubletoss Interludes" is a unique merging of the voices of Cage and Cunningham, interpreted by artists deeply influenced by them.

"Double Toss" (1993) Photo by Johan Elbers.

Philip Sandstrom: What was the genesis of this project? How did it all come about?

Robert Swinston: In the summer of 2011 I got an email from ?Pedja Muzijevic, a musician who works for the Baryshnikov Arts Center [as Artistic Administrator]. He asked me if it would be possible to make a reconstruction of 4 Walls, the dance-play that Merce [Cunningham] created in 1944 when he spent the summer at Perry-Mansfield College in Boulder, Colorado. Merce was still in the Martha Graham Dance Company at that time. He wrote this dance-play, there is actually a script for it, and he asked John [Cage] to create the music. John couldn’t come to Colorado, so he sent the score and supposedly made it simple enough that anyone could play it. Of course, I’m exaggerating… He [Merce] asked Arch Lauterer [a theatrical designer who worked with Martha Graham] to do the décor.

PS: Wow, such historical significance, I would have loved to have seen that.

RS: Well, it was only performed once, there were five characters in the dance-play, a girl, her brother, a mother and father, the girl’s fiancée, and two choruses -- one with six "near" ones and one with six mad ones.

PS: It all sounds so Graham…

RS: Well he was in the Graham Company…and it was during World War II, and the mores of that time were still very formal and rigid.
RS: The ‘near’ ones were the townspeople and they had lines and the mad ones were a chorus of dancers. The actress Julie Harris played the young girl and Merce played the boy. It’s hard to fathom.

PS: Does any of this survive?

RS: About 45 seconds of the material is in "Cage/Cunningham", a documentary by Elliot Caplan, which amounted to seven vignettes and seven cuts. Two of the cuts were of the girls’ chorus dancing and the other was Merce whipping his body around. In between were pantomimic sections that were very melodramatic.

PS: So were did you go from there?

RS: After looking at all that information, I told Pedja that I didn’t think I could possibly recreate it. Also, the language in the script was written by a 25-year old Merce Cunningham with the influence of James Joyce; a bit topsy-turvy. I would need trained actors to manage the language and the material was difficult to comprehend.

PS: Wouldn’t it be hard to say how it was staged?

RS: Impossible. So, I said I can’t do that but what if I research Merce’s body of work and see if there was another dance that might work with the 4 Walls music. BAC said ok, try. So, I went through the [Cunningham] dance archives and there was another piece that Merce had made in 1993 called Doubletoss in which I had danced. So I tried it out. I had the CD [of 4 Walls] from the musician who will be performing the work live and the video of Doubletoss and played them side-by-side; it seemed to work.

PS: How is that?

RS: It works qualitatively; the music is very sensitive, and tonal, and there’s actually harmony.

PS: Sounds like another stage of Cage…

RS: It was a period when he was doing his prepared piano pieces, producing a gamelan kind of sound and there were chord progressions. This was early John work nonetheless with hallmarks of what was to come, like the silent passages and repetitions. Wikipedia refers to this work as a precursor to minimalism and the work of Philip Glass and Steve Reich.

PS: The phenomenon, that we will soon experience, of matching "4 Walls" with "Doubletoss" started off with Pedja’s contacting you, but where does Alexi, the piano player, fit into all of this?

RS: BAC had been planning a piano concert by Alexei Lubimov, which will be performed a few days after the 4 Walls/Doubletoss Interludes show.

PS: So, 4 Walls/Doubletoss Interlude, will be sort of a warm-up act for Lubimov, to take advantage of his presence in town as well as being a fun project?

RS: Once we determined that this project would be possible, I went to the Merce Cunningham Trust for permission to do this adaptation. It is "Doubletoss" but in a sense it’s not Doubletoss because it’s a 30-minute dance with 14 dancers, with music by Takehisa Kosugi, and 4 Walls is a 55-minute piece of music.

PS: How did you fill that out? Or you don’t?

"Double Toss" (1993). Photo by Atsushi Iijima.

RS: That’s why it’s called "4 Walls/Doubletoss Interludes." I’m embedding the dance into the music and separating the sections, which were originally created transitionally; there were overlaps. I’ve reduced the overlaps, except when they were vital to the continuity. In some cases I extended the duration of the movements, in some cases I had to repeat certain movements or make a manipulation.

PS: You were able to lengthen the dance in this way, using just Merce’s movement?

RS: In studying Merce’s notes, he has a continuity and then phrases, they’re separate. In his continuity, at page six, the dance actually stops. But he had made a continuity for page seven and half of page eight, so there were movement materials and phrases, that he always numbered, that were not in the dance [that have never been seen]. It’s somewhat like a lost Mozart manuscript. I don’t think he didn’t use them because he didn’t want them. I think that after 30 minutes he wanted to end the dance. And, I think he was satisfied with the ending he had.

[Swinston’s notes on continuity and phrases: The continuity Merce prepared for "Doubletoss", two dances [an A and a B dance] intertwined, consisted of 7 and a half double pages. On the right page there are pictures of the stage plan, an open square with arrows delineating the paths of the dancers in each dance. On the left page the phrase numbers of the choreography for both dances are listed in the chronological order they appear along with the initials of the dancers doing them. The dance Merce originally made in 1993 ended at 30 minutes near the bottom of page 6, leaving 1 and a half pages of additional, unused material.]

PS: Did you re-incorporate these sections into the dance?

RS: I’ve had to in order to…

PS: So, what we’ll see no one has ever seen? That’s great.

RS: If it goes well. It is, of course, an adaptation. This version has eight dancers -- four women and four men; originally there were 14 dancers -- eight women and six men. It’s a risk but it has been a wonderful opportunity to re-assemble this work and to, once again, work with the Cunningham dancers.

Alexei Lubimov, Cage/Cunningham Program
4 Walls / Doubletoss Interludes
Choreography by Merce Cunningham
Arranged by Robert Swinston
Music by John Cage
Alexei Lubimov, piano
March 22-24, 2012 [Thursday – Friday at 8 PM + Saturday at 2 PM + 8 PM]
Jerome Robbins Theater at the Baryshnikov Arts Center [BAC]
Tickets: $25

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