Choreography in Focus
Merce Cunningham: Common Time

included in Merce Cunningham: Common Time exhibition catalogue (2017)

Copyright Fionn Meade and Walker Art Center

Merce Cunningham Dance Company (Carolyn Brown, Merce Cunningham, Shareen Blair, and Viola Farber in foreground) in Antic Meet (1958), University of Southern California, Los Angeles, May 23, 1963

Antic Meet (1958)
This rowdy and raucous work is a series of vignettes, a comedy that shuffles in ten brief acts. Cunningham takes the lead, his jesterlike gambits deliberately moving the narrative forward. He is first lovelorn, then content and tame in his chair duet with Carolyn Brown, and finally tragicomic, caught in a jester’s sweater without a neckhole. The dance shows off his immense talent for mime, farce, and appropriated or mimicked everyday movements, put into relief by clean lines and isolated gestures. A staccato allegro in wide second position, for example, is repeated a number of times throughout and embodies the disjointed, teasing nature of the work. By contrast, the opening sequence and a section of the dance wherein the company wears sunglasses and stalks the stage against a bracing spotlight brings one of his signature movement styles to the fore: the company walks on relevé, arms sharply raised, and the dancers make swift changes in direction and sudden accelerations followed by stillness. Cunningham’s final solo is a nearly Chaplinesque frolic in which his training in vernacular American dance styles blends uncannily with the formal acuity of his own evolving choreography for company.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company (Carolyn Brown in foreground) in Scramble (1967), Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, 1970

Scramble (1967)
In Slow Trio, one of Scramble’s eighteen sections, three female dancers move slowly yet fluidly, lifting their left legs at ninety degrees, bending backward then forward, ronds de jambe to arabesques as they begin gradually to break into their own patterns, sharing only a sustained tempo through the passage. Like the gliding movement of Frank Stella’s canvas banner décor that slowly crosses the stage behind them, their movement obeys an underlying geometry even as it morphs into variation. The dancers’ interpretations of the basic shapes multiply into versions in much the same manner as the individual hues of the canvas banners alternately bring forward and pull back differing impressions of depth, the colors competing in a push and pull scramble between foreground and backdrop. In another sequence, each of the nine dancers executes a different movement simultaneously; having deployed chance procedures ahead of time to determine who would perform which shape, Cunningham creates a call and response between Stella’s undulant décor and the movement of the dancers’ bodies below, behind, in front of, and around it. This versioning within simultaneity expands Stella’s color tensions into the time-based uniqueness-within-sameness principle that lies at the core of Cunningham’s technique.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company (Albert Reid, Valda Setterfield, Sandra Neels, Barbara Lloyd Dilley, and Merce Cunningham in foreground) in Walkaround Time, Buffalo State College, State University of New York, 1968

Walkaround Time 1969
When the lights go up, the company stands motionless and objectlike between the movable décor, transparent cubes that bear Jasper Johns’s painted transposition of the mechanized yet erotic imagery from Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass. The dance is divided into two acts, separated by an entr’acte during which the dancers remain on the stage, stretching, talking, and warming up. Over the course of the dance, sections of choreography are repeated at different angles—Cunningham’s running in place while facing downstage, for example, is echoed in the running striptease with which he opens the second half of the work. While the first half of Walkaround Time is accelerated, perhaps suggesting the flurry of Duchamp’s looming bachelors, the second is slow, almost meditative. Incorporating a number of assisted lifts, dancers repeatedly hurl themselves at each other, a motif of confrontation reinforced near the end of the work when Cunningham lifts and carries under his arm a motionless, statuesque Carolyn Brown. Similarly, Jeff Slayton crosses the stage left to right with sharp, aggressive lunges set among the décor. His movement is mirrored by Meg Harper’s languid carriage across the stage along the same path later in the dance. Then the company assembles and rushes off with the set piece depicting Duchamp’s “malic moulds.”

Merce Cunningham and Charles Atlas Channels/Inserts 1981 (still) video (color, sound), 32 min. (Kristy Santimyer-Melita, Robert Swinston, and Catherine Kerr in foreground)

Channels Inserts (1981)
One of Cunningham’s first dances choreographed for the company not inclusive of himself, and the first work of video dance set on the company members alone, the perspective offered in Channels/Inserts is that of Cunningham as observant director as opposed to leading performer. Although the roving camera circumnavigates the dancers through the space, the choreography maintains a frontality and a heightened emphasis of the shapes of arms and limbs. As if to emphasize this two-dimensionality, the choreography returns again and again to a side bend of the torso, a quick reach over one side before springing back upright, the movement pushing and pulling between the camera in motion and the two dimensional plane of the screen. The company moves in duets and groups that flow in and out of patterns and variations between the Westbeth studio, the hallways behind the space, and the studio space turned black box theater. Moving seamlessly through various rooms, the dancers enact the movement vocabulary with which Cunningham would work for the next three decades of video dance.

Charles Atlas Ocean 2010 (still) HD video (color, sound), 100:28 min. Filmed in Rainbow Quarry, Waite Park, Minnesota, September 2008

Ocean 1994
Ocean opens with the appearance of a solo male
dancer—perhaps a proxy for the elderly Cunningham— whose movement is a connecting series of curves of the back and arms, mirroring the circular stage but drawing energy upward like a geyser. As two additional dancers take the stage, they in turn kneel to the floor ritualistically, paying homage to the preceding before swapping roles. This orans-type genuflection recurs throughout the work, the dancers’ upward- raised arms emphasizing and mirroring their movements around the circumference of the stage in a way that recalls the processionals of figures on Greek vases and mosaics. There is a tender sensuality to the work, exemplified during recurring duets, in which a female dancer leans on and is supported by the bridge of her male partner’s torso. Although complex and varied, the movement slowly accelerates in speed and momentum, a centrifugal stillness acting upon the dancers between movements until the final minutes, when the company floods the stage with allegro jumps in an uncharacteristic crescendo.

Charles Atlas and Merce Cunningham BIPED 2005 (still) video (color, sound), 48:14 min.

BIPED (1999)
Watching BIPED is akin to observing birds or dragonflies swiftly swooping near water, all moving within a similar vocabulary but with their own intent and quickly changing orientation. The dance is composed of shape-shifting solos, duets, and trios that move the bodies in isolation even when grouped together. Key moments occur when the entrances and exits pause and a trio moves quietly about the stage, as if placed briefly in relief before being swallowed in the next wave of scurrying real and virtual bodies pouring from the wings. One triad performs the same choreography at different angles to the audience, as if providing “in the round” views, while another breaks down time, cascading from upstage left as one dancer initiates the passage, with her partners following, each half a count after the other. Although the movement is fleeting, there is a countering calmness; time is swift and studied yet fragmented, virtual and live in compositional counterpoint, with each rapid flurry ending in an extended pause. In a seeming third act, male dancers appear wearing sheer gauze garment over iridescent unitards, tenderly offering the same to the female dancers on stage. Then the pairs flutter apart before shedding their chrysalis-like costumes, united as one company.

-- Fionn Meade

Copryright Fionn Meade unless otherwise stated