Precision confidently worn

Anne Hogan finds the Merce Cunningham dancers exude technical prowess but also detects diffidence

November 11, 2010

Credit: Anne Finke

Nearly Ninety

Merce Cunningham Dance Company

Barbican, London

26-30 October 2010.

The performance will be staged at four venues in France in November and moves to Florida in December. The worldwide Legacy Tour runs until 31 December 2011

Legacy is a vexed concept for the temporally visceral art of dance - how do you keep choreography alive when it ceases to be performed by dancers who worked directly with its creator? Merce Cunningham, who died on 26 July 2009, approached his own perpetuity with a radicalism befitting his standing as modern dance's most mercurial visionary. He stipulated that, after his death, the company he founded in 1953 would undertake a two-year tour, and then cease to exist. Henceforth, documentation of Cunningham's prolific oeuvre will be transferred to the Cunningham Trust, which will oversee reconstructions by companies around the world and "MiniEvents" for dance students.

Nearly Ninety, Cunningham's last world premiere, was performed as part of the London leg of the farewell tour (aficionados need not despair yet - the company will return next autumn for its final appearance). The work contains moments of rivetingly quirky linearity that bear witness to Cunningham's formal dexterity. As a full evening-length work, however, Nearly Ninety feels one act too long and is at times performed, especially in the first part, with technical diffidence.

The stage is dominated less by the dancers than by a massive, multi-tiered bandstand, designed by the Italian architect Benedetta Tagliabue and resembling (rather wonderfully) a cross between an oil rig and Battlestar Galactica. The music (soundscape is perhaps a more accurate depiction) is performed by Takehisa Kosugi, John Paul Jones and the Neokarma Jooklo Experience, housed on various levels. It fluctuates between the amusing (eccentric buzzes and the rattle of...what, a microphone being swallowed?), the forgettable and the simply annoying. Do not expect to exit humming a catchy tune.

Cunningham has spent a career querying, reconfiguring and impishly undoing structural precepts such as the relationship between dance, music and traditional scenography. Nearly Ninety posits a characteristically gratuitous relationship between the preponderate set and the bodies moving in front of it, until a stunning moment in the second part when a dancer slowly ascends a stairway as a platform high above spits out for her to dance upon. She hovers atop the shifting formations of duos and trios, exhibits cut-glass clarity of line and a calmly arresting presence, then languidly retraces her steps, some abstract distillation of a goddess descending, or Persephone, perhaps, called back to the underworld.

More often, however, the dancers exude less joy of movement than high seriousness. Although renowned for their technical ability, they seem at times uncomfortable with the choreography, conspicuously projecting its considerable demands. We are excruciatingly aware of how hard it is to segue multiple turns into promenade attitude, or flex forward and up again perched on demi-pointe. Yet as the work evolves, they grow to own the movement, and there are instances of geometric gorgeousness, of precision confidently worn.

Cunningham embraced technology as his career progressed, and here the chunky bandstand is occasionally veiled by a scrim, intriguingly imbued with computer-generated blobs and drops of water exquisitely expanding. Yet Nearly Ninety seems less technologically grounded than harkening back to the indelibly formalist aspects of Cunningham's aesthetic, from the de rigueur unitards to the cleanly tectonic choreographic palette. Its coldly structural design should be dispassionate yet can be profoundly moving. Nearly Ninety, however, doesn't quite gel as a totality (although that is perhaps the point), and the impact of the sheer bounty of movement, the ceaseless regroupings, eventually peters out.

I left the theatre lamenting the passing of one of the 20th century's most inventive spirits, but nevertheless relieved that the performance was finally finished.

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