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Merce Cunningham Dance Company,<br /> The Melbourne Event, Federation Square Merce Cunningham Dance Company,
The Melbourne Event, Federation Square
photo Carla Gottgens

event: federation square

The event was performed on two white raised stages, a little apart, with a matted red passage between them. The Music Committee (Christian Wolff, Takehisha Kosusgi, David Behrmann and John King—although I’m not sure now if all were present) accompanied the dancers on a stage nearby; a screen above them showed the performance close-up. For the viewer the scene was rich, looking between each of these and at the audience too; overall the given situation, the square and the sky and the helicopters, reflected the overall philosophy of the Cunningham way—that is, that there are multiple points of view, and that distraction can happen at any time and in any direction.

There were thousands of people, and the square was a perfect venue, and the weather was perfect, hot and overcast and still, rain hovering, and the performance was a perfect experience, an extremely moving ‘event.’ The 14 dancers used both stages, performing solo or together, and changing stages, the running between the stages part of the action. The event was about the event of dancing—the whole scene; we were in and of it; and the dancers were twisting and bending, unfolding, standing still, raising fingers, finding synchrony (for a second). The music/sound made its way through the time and space from its own realm, producing itself with and as the event; the dancers were precise in their own way, the musicians were precise in their own way, and we were watching in our own precise way, moving with our alert and longing bodies toward the dancers, being attentive to the intricate shapes they made, and were, external to themselves, as they found pleasure in the company and support of each other. Nothing big or spectacular, but endless ruptures and deferrals. Dance that could emerge once, and then once more (as if only just beginning to emerge), like water, like sand too.

in conversation

And then, on Monday evening Merce Cunningham was ‘in conversation’ with Lee Christofis and David Vaughan. And the sheer quiet elegance of his talk (I mean the tone of it, the good humour)—as this is what it was, just talk, in terms of his life-story as a matter of ‘fact’ and extraordinary at the same time, and never underestimating the situation in which he found himself, and the people he was fortunate to learn from, as it happened and as he ‘took it up’—was instructive and compelling, as ‘talk’ without command. It was a life lived—which is what he said ‘dance’ is—a way to be alive; that one is in the body of the dance, as a life, living.

What became clear was that we are each differently alone, and involved, always, despite our condition, in the actualising of ourselves as ‘movement’ (as vibrating creatures, even at rest); with dance we watch the body that we are performing before us, embodied (only) with its tuned flesh, blood and bones, and the thought-body of a philosophy. And we are mesmerised that it can make itself such an instrument; and that instrument manifests itself continually as rippling overlapping force-lines; that it is a line drawing energy through space (touching upon the terrible moment, recognised, of one’s own passing)—the picture never stills, the score is never settled, the drawing bursts out of its trajectory—in the next/to/nothing of a pattern that snaps, and pours or slides across another.

Dance, as Cunningham teaches it, is an inventive process, a learning without end that invites thought for thought’s sake; for the sake of thought’s own dance toward the unknown. The stage’s replete availability is acted on immediately, instantly, presently. There is no going back, no erasure, no hiding places. The stage is there, a zone/field, and the performer is there in real time, to dance for dance. It is in the doing that learning happens (said Cunningham), and it happens in unexpected, unforeseen ways; that is, it happens as it passes (in the acts of living/dying). It is this that passes that can be reflected upon, as if by chance (imagined), and by chance (amazement). As a reading, or a way of creating, it is the ‘present tense’ pressing forward, and paused by taking time to think with the ‘unpinned’, the glimpsed. It is though, to some extent, present(ed) to us through effort, this is its matrix, its begetting; that it arrives with ‘the times’—the political scene, the despair, the hope—of its making (its interminable repetition) and the times of its delivery (now, as we wait, hold our breath, and dream ‘freedom’) through (and this is a decades-long slow acceleration) the mind of Merce Cunningham. Dance, as he makes it (in the imaginal), is possibly the closest form of ‘making’ to our ordinary going-about in the world—or perhaps this is only a make-believe (imaginary) state of my own (believable nevertheless).


Then there were the two performances at the State Theatre of five dances, dated between 1956 and 2006: Suite for Five, eyeSpace, BIPED (these were accompanied by live acoustic and electronic music played by Christian Wolff, Stephan Moore, Josephine Vains, Takehisa Kosugi and John King), Views on Stage, and Split Sides (with Christian Wolff, Josephine Vains, Takehisa Kosugi, and Sigur Rós). The music composed by John Cage, Mikel Rouse, Gavin Bryars, Radiohead and Sigur Rós. I will mention only three of the works.

Firstly Suite for Five (1956-58), the earliest one, with John Cage’s Music for Piano. This is spare, sparse dance, elegant even now—single steps, single notes, joinings, unjoinings, small classical references, funny too (solos, trios, quintets); one saw ‘instability’, the separation between dancers, and the body changing (how it adjusts, falls, leaps, lands, curls, reaches; the body’s contours bare as bones) from one shape to another; one could feel the intricacy of a step and a note, how they look and sound, and how far apart they are, as one watches and listens for their coming into the world, all by themselves, to find each other.

Then after an interval eyeSpace (2006). We all brought, or borrowed at the venue, an iPod, and when instructed turned it on. The set (called ‘décor’ in the program notes) was minimal but imposing, like a fragment of an architectural relic, and the dancers mostly, as I recall, in groups. A whole theatre of people were suddenly within their own aural space, each hearing whatever their shuffle was up to—from commissioned work by Mikel Rouse titled International Cloud Atlas (almost kitschy, post-pop, slightly dark, perhaps muzak). But through the headphones, coming from elsewhere, could be heard something different; there was another ambience being played; out there were urban noises, distant voices, a railway station, a scene of passage, of anonymous deeply resonant humanness. What one had then was ‘eyespace’, one was a looking-creature, shut in, but with freedom to ‘come out’ and hear the world, as can happen on a train, or bus, or plane—and there was no correspondence between elements, they just were as they were; one was moving inside the space of oneself and through the space of the universe—there was no easy way of conforming here; one could listen as one wanted. The dancers though seemed clumsy at times, tired even.

Split Sides (2003) was the very last work to be performed at the festival. It opened with Cunningham on stage explaining how the dance would be structured with the throwing of dice. Several people threw the dice, including festival director Kristy Edmunds. This was videoed, and we saw it on a stage screen. Odds or evens determined the order of the two parts of the dance, and of the decor, the costumes, the lighting, and the music—Radiohead or Sigur Rós. As it happened, Sigur Rós were second. And this for me was the highlight—seeing/hearing them perform live with the MC Dance Company. Sigur Rós are Jon Thor Birgisson, Orri Pall Dyrason, Georg Holm, and Kjartan Sveinsson. I’m a fan of this Icelandic group, so I was in heaven. Two of the group stood throughout the set, their darkly silhouetted heads sitting above the centre of the stage watching the dancers. And as the music rose and fell and wound its strangely ethereal and romantic tensions throughout the space the dancers came alive in a more intense way (connecting tenuously with the sound-landscape); perhaps I imagined this, but by the end of the dance they were sharper and at the edge of the sound, their bodies infused with the continual wooden wound-up clicking noise threaded through the sonic beauty.

to work with the work

And what to write, to close? There’s probably nothing to write, except that there is too much to write. When he was a young dancer, Merce Cunningham said “dancing is a spiritual exercise in physical form …” And one can sense this, a silence, a pause, that energises the actual act (makes of it a field)—a flash of exquisite timing, a body flying, a set of tiny shuffles, something releases, lets go, delivers, and it’s not the composite of someone/dancer, but another (other of oneself), a sensed thing. And then there is faith, to do it, and to be prepared for it. And that’s what he said in the ‘conversation’—to do it, is it (life).

The ‘work’ that is done is the key here, the freedom to do ‘work’, to do the work one has to do. It’s a political act, an imperfect act, and it is perfectly useless, it’s the least one can do for a world at war, for instance, or a world gripped by the economics-of-everything, in any case a world whose heart is breaking. It’s not hard to see this work, as the decors are relatively plain (that is, definite and artful), the bodies clearly shown (in body-suits), the lighting never a shelter, the music opening spaces for the rhythms (and imbalances) of the various bodies (leaving the dancers to find other ways of working in near unison besides beats); that is, the bodies have no narrative to dwell within, and as soon as you surmise that there might be, it flees—nothing develops, starts, stops, possibilities abound (maybe everything is/was practice, life as practice). “Our way of working is political, but not overtly so, rather in the way we work together…We have travelled all these years with separate individuals, each one doing their work; I don’t tell the musicians what they have to do, nor they me, and it’s the same with the artists. For me, this is a political movement…”

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company sets thought in motion; not because of seeing the dance-body, its restlessness, its difficult exuberance, but because of the philosophy it is imbued with, and the acts and interactions it has created across genres—the writings and art that it has engendered, the changes to dance itself, and the crucial personal and professional relationships sustained between two intellectual and poetic thinkers, John Cage and Merce Cunnigham. This work asks us to ‘work’ with it, and to investigate their ‘working’ methods, so as to act upon the world ourselves—outside of being present to-see.

Cunningham quotations are from Dee Reynolds, Rhythmic Subjects, Uses of Energy in the Dances of Mary Wigman, Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham, Dance Books, Hampshire, 2007

Melbourne International Arts Festival, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, The Melbourne Event, Federation Square, Oct 21; Merce Cunningham in Conversation, ACMI Cinema 2, Oct 22; Program A Oct 24, 25, Program B, Oct 26, 27 State Theatre, Arts Centre, Melbourne

RealTime issue #82 Dec-Jan 2007 pg. 6

© Linda Marie Walker; for permission to reproduce apply to

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