Dance Review

No Guts, No Glory: Merce Cunningham at UNC

April 18, 2008 - Chapel Hill, NC:

Merce Cunningham has been important in the dance world for more than half a century, and he apparently intends to remain, if not on the leading edge, then in the first following wave, judging by his substitution of the recorded music of Radiohead and Sigur Ros for that of his long-time music director John Cage (who died in 1992), or any other live music, and his introduction of iPod Shuffles into his aleatory process. Carolina Performing Arts presented the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Memorial Hall to an initially eager crowd that exited with all the alacrity possible under the circumstances.

If I’d thought it out ahead of time, I would have realized that no good was going to come of those iPods. Stepping into the lobby, the audience was asked to choose one of three precious items (license, credit card, or cell phone) to leave hostage in exchange for the little techno-toy, which was to provide the music for eyeSpace (2006) after the intermission. But I didn’t think it through, so I got suckered like everybody else, manipulated into taking part in the appalling exercise, then stuck in the mob of glum people waiting to retrieve their phones and rid themselves of the tiny device.

Artists, naturally, are always portraying the life of their times, but generally what we want from those portraits is some enlightenment, or encouragement, or some access to empathy, rather than merely a reflection or imitation of what we see around us. We can perfectly well hear and see the noise and ugliness of the contemporary world, and we can bloody well see all the self-isolating twerps separating themselves from life with their earbuds. Could anyone need a highly produced artwork about this, let alone one that exists to destroy any possibility of commonality? The best thing I can say about eyeSpace is that is was brief. The wait to turn in the Ipod was longer.

Here was the deal. A voice over the PA told everyone when to turn the iPods on — but they were set to shuffle the cuts that were loaded on them, so the audience wasn’t listening to the same thing at the same time. Cute. Worse was the fact that there was also sound coming from speakers on the stage. This was the sound the dancers could hear — noise, honking and such — and it could also be heard around one’s earbuds. I think there was some great dancing going on, although I can’t recall a single image from it. I was too busy screwing with the technology; too busy trying not to lose my mind from not hearing what the dancers were hearing; too busy trying not to cry over the sight of all the people in Memorial Auditorium not sharing an experience. My companion, who figured out much sooner than I did that there was no good sound to be gotten out of the shuffled sections of Mikel Rouse’s International Cloud Atlas, leaned over and said: “This is how a migraine starts.” Behind us I heard a snort of agreement. I suppose it is possible that those who hide within their iPods may have received a shock of recognition, but overall, this stochastic experiment seemed a general failure, and its depressive qualities were only slightly allayed by the anger at having been played for a fool.

The program’s first half had more to recommend it, especially if you like cerebral games. Split Sides (2003) consists of five elements, each with two states. Dance A, dance B; colored backdrop, or black and white; costumes ditto; music by Radiohead or by Sigur Ros; 200 or 300 lighting cues. Each of the ten variables is used in every performance, but the order of each of the split pairs is determined immediately beforehand by the roll of a die. This effectively severs any internal relationship between or among the elements, and it is a clever way of asserting the contingency of everything, or the difficulty of fully perceiving an artwork. (You’d have to sit through this untold times to see all 32 combinations, and that would be a lot of Radiohead.)

The design of the piece is in keeping with Cunningham’s larger oeuvre, and is elegant, reminiscent of the weavings of Anni Albers, or the color squares of Josef Albers, both of whom were important figures at Black Mountain College, where the Merce Cunningham Dance Company coalesced in 1953. Yet it had no heart, no guts. There was some wonderful movement, lots of wonderful movement, but it couldn’t touch you. It was this, but it could have been that... there was no sense of the necessity of any of it, so it was hard to pay attention, and there was nothing to which your feelings could attach. All bets were hedged; nothing was fully committed. And, in order for the game to be played, each part had to “work” with the others, which ensured a certain monotony. Instead of glorying in the mystical power of dance to keep the viewer in the moment with it, Split Sides encouraged the mind to leap away, speculating on what might be or could have been, and miss what was.