Merce Cunningham – Berkeley

I attended my first performance of the Merce Cunningham Dance Ensemble a couple of years ago at the 50th anniversary celebration at Lincoln Center. Until that time, I had known very little of Merce Cunningham and his work, only some sidenotes in my investigations into the work of John Cage and the rest of the “New York School” of composition. Some time before the two performances, I had purchased Merce Cunningham: Dancing in Time and Space as well as Merce Cunningham – A Lifetime of Dance to get more acquainted with his work; in exploring these resources I became quite affected by his ideas and taste and was eager to view his work.

The two programs were each performed twice over four nights and I attended one of each program. The first program I found to be alright, but didn’t find myself so fully engaged. The second night’s program, on the other hand, was completely stunning—works so beautiful I didn’t have the capacity to think, so focused in with the experience at hand.

Since moving to California I’ve had the opportunity to attend two more performances of the Merce Cunningham Ensemble, once last year and once again tonight. Last year’s performance was unremarkable for me–something about the music and the pieces didn’t quite capture my attention. Tonight’s performance, though, was completely unreal.

The first piece, Underground Overlays, had wonderful music by Stuart Dempster (CD available here). I’ve enjoyed Stuart Dempster’s music and his work with Deep Listening Band for quite some time, and it was quite a treat to be able to hear this piece with him performing live.

The choreography of the piece was beautiful—I found at times wondering “What is Dance?”. I had a conversation a long while back with Josh Shaddock about dance and he told me he found a lot of modern dance to revert to something sexual or be laced with undertones of exploring human drama, and because of this mostly uninteresting. I think that’s why I liked the performances tonight so very much, as dance seemed to be something else.

What I saw in the tonight felt very pure (that word came to mind numerous times). Dance here was nothing more than what it was, and being that, it was sublime. In watching the performers I thought that the beauty of dance was the beauty of motion, the medium in this case simply being the bodies of the dancers, the canvas being the stage. I thought to myself, then, the study of dance is the study of motion, and that got me thinking a while about what is dance, and where does it exist. (I’ve often found myself looking at the leaves of trees when the wind is blowing, watching the gentle motion, and I wonder now about this dance…)

The second piece, Biped, was unbelievable. I was very much looking forward to seeing this piece as the very short excerpts that were on the DVD documentary were amazing. I first watched the documentary a couple of years ago, so I’ve been anticipating an opportunity to view the piece; I didn’t think I’d ever have a chance to see it live, but was so very fortunate to do so. It was better than I could have imagined.

The music by Gavin Bryars was quite nice, though I think I connected more with the Dempster piece. The staging of the piece was phenomenal, the lighted squares, the dancers, and the computer generated overlays on the scrim were just gorgeous in their motion and interactions. After the piece was over, I found myself appreciating how tasteful were these elements used, thinking a lesser person would have overdone everything.

I left the performance thinking to myself how lucky I was to have been there. At any point in time I could be anywhere doing anything, but for this night I chose to be here to attend this performance, and how rewarding it was. These types of experiences—art experiences—expand the boundaries of personal experience, explore unvisited parts of the human experience. The world always looks different after such an event, a little more rich, fascinating, beautiful.

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