BWW Review: THE CUNNINGHAM TRUST Unveils a Dusty Extract
For whom is a dance made and why? This question kept coming to me as I watched the unveiling of Merce Cunningham's "Cunningham Ballett" at Baryshnikov Arts Center on May 18th, 2016. Thought lost to time -- Cunningham never saw fit to reconstruct or re-imagine this work -- this recording was recently unearthed in the archives of Norddeutscher Rundrunk Studio Hamburg. Nearly 50 years after it was recorded, the premiere of Cunningham performing the solo "Changeling" was shown, followed by a live presentation of the same piece by Silas Reiner -- a sui generis performer who excels in the technique. The question is, to what end? Choreographically there was nothing particularly compelling about this work whereas there are numerous examples of Cunningham performing some of his greatest works already on film - if nothing else, the man was prolific in documenting his rehearsals and performances. Indeed, on this same bill we were treated to a recording of Cunningham performing "Suite in Two" and "Springweather and People" -- also contained in the film recording -- with the luminous Carolyn Brown. While it is possible to follow the development of Cunningham's ideas through "Changeling", little is added to the conversation by doing so. Again, there are stronger works available to the Trust that accomplish this and that were sanctioned by the master.
As an intellectual Cunningham craved the possibility of new ideas, though not for the sake of novelty; creations that "did not work" regardless of how new were dropped from the repertory. Cunningham recorded this work and moved on, which begs the question: why has The Trust orchestrated this showing at all? I suppose the raison d'être was seeing Cunningham perform in a previously unseen recording, though having recently lost another creative genius who was firmly in control of his output -- the musician Prince -- I can't help but think that Cunningham would have disapproved.
In her opening remarks, Cunningham Trustee Patricia Lent informed us that Cunningham referred to himself as a changeling, suggesting that he felt alien to those around him. It was a nice piece of information to receive, though I failed to see said effect reflected here. True, there were moments of body compression and awkwardness riddled throughout the work, but then that highlight is hardly unique to this solo. Are we to imagine that this piece was seminal?
"Changeling" opened with Cunningham balancing on one leg, like a crane who is using petit battement in parallel before pushing the working leg forward through tendu into fourth position with the front leg in forced arch. The most striking detail in seeing this recording was the complete absence of feeling that emanated from him; it was almost as if Cunningham had become an animatronic automaton. In contrast, Mr. Reiner deployed an extravagant manner that seemed foreign to the remote Cunningham style; the technique calls for a nonrepresentational execution regardless of the task at hand. Strangely, Mr. Reiner added physical varnishes that gave him the appearance of a preening male peacock and in his use of breath he sounded like a Graham dancer. In his rendering, this was a man going through a series of animalistic transformations. Choreographically the most interesting moment in both versions came through a series of turns that ended with a step over effect which preceded a tightly reined in enveloppé jump with startling verticality.
Ultimately "Changeling" touched upon numerous facets of the technique without ever revealing a particular reason for receiving this special showing. Why not simply release it to The Jerome Robbins Dance Division of The New York Public Library? As a decidedly minor work, I doubt that Mr. Cunningham himself would have lavished such energies upon revealing "Changeling".
Closing the program was an initially lukewarm reading of "Suite in Two". The solos are not so difficult that they should cause straining and tension as we saw with Benny Olk and Vanessa Knouse. This was doubly noticeable after having witnessed the serenity of Cunningham and Ms. Brown and the mastery of Mr. Reiner. During the film showing of Ms. Brown and Cunningham's performance, there was an ease and nonchalance even when Ms. Brown lowered down prematurely from a piqué arabesque balance. For the live performance, it appeared that the dancers were trying too hard for higher legs and stretched relevè than they were comfortably capable of maintaining. This straining created a fascinating interpretation in the pas de deux. Mr. Olk's discomfort was palpable during the promenade on knees with Ms. Knouse balanced on his shoulders. While the dancers preserved the nonrepresentational style, their partnership seemed labored; the resulting tension seemed nigh unbearable. It came as a relief when the two separated to dance independently of each other. These stoic performers striving mightily to execute something that did not come naturally to them as partners took on the bearing a romantic couple struggling to "make it work" despite their lack of compatibility. They might have been betrothed against their will, though determined to stick it out. Finally, here was the 'new' that one longs to discover during a Cunningham performance. I'm certain that Cunningham would not have approved of the romantic evocation, though I like to think that he would have delighted in the unintended effect.
The music - Christian Wolff's "Suite" and John Cage's "Music for Piano' - was played by David Tudor for the live performances.
Photo Credit: Stephanie Berger