Friday March 2, 2007

Merce Cunningham' s Ocean

Merce Cunningham - Ocean

Thanks to the good people at Carnival Center, I finally got my taste of Merce in Miami. To wit: the 90 minute 1994 piece Ocean.

Intended to be performed in the round, with the dancers on a circular stage surrounded by the audience, and the audience surrounded by the orchestra, the piece was a brave, if imperfect, fit for the Knight Concert hall (my second favorite room in the city, second only to my living room, and it would even upstage that if they got rid of the bizarre fabric hanging in the middle behind the stage — teal and with a pattern that doesn’t go with anything else in the building — in fact, it sort of looks like a “it was on clearance at the fabric store” type of situation — what gives?).

Oh shit sorry for the digression. Anyway Merce Cunningham sort of invented Modern (with a capital “M”) Dance in the 1940/50s, and his work comes across as stark and formal to this day. This is hardcore, rigorous choreography, with no allusion to an external story, or even to regular human interaction.

Basically, Cunningham is to dance what the abstract expressionists were to painting — a reduction to the essence of the art, with references to outside phenomena (i.e. human story-lines) minimized. This is pure movement, and it’s not for everyone.

The piece builds slowly over exactly 90 minutes, the musicians and dancers synchronized by large digital timers clearly visible to the audience. At 1:29:59 the last of the dancers disappears from the stage and that baby is over. That is preceded by a gradual and methodical development (Supposedly the piece is divided into 19 sections, though I read it as maybe 7.) — we begin with very stiff movements, and angular relationships of bodies, which gradually become more organic and energetic. The piece builds to a sort of crescendo (pictured) of movement and color, much more satisfying then what the beginning sections promise. There are dazzling moves, unexpected relationships, and novel ideas at every turn.

What I’m getting at is that it was spectacular. Cunningham (who attended the performance) was 75 when he put Ocean together, and he’d mastered the art of working the crowd — the piece starts out difficult, and gives off hints of beauty grudgingly at first, then introduces new ideas and variations, never allowing the attentive viewer a moment of boredom.

Or does it? I noticed a beautiful review by Jane Simpson of a true in-the-round performance of the piece, and she had some issues with it (go read, she’s great). But the Carnival Center performance of the piece was I guess the polar opposite to what Simpson saw — the musicians sat on the upper level of balconies, far from most of the audience, and the round mat on the stage hardly masked the fact that most of the audience were, in fact, seeing the performance from roughly a single perspective.

Reservations aside, this is a masterwork by the founding father of modern dance. It’s the culmination of Merce in Miami, which is exactly the sort of thing that Carnival Center should be doing — the sort of thing that makes all the heartache surrounding its construction worth it. It’s being performed again Friday and again Saturday, and anyone who loves dance, or likes to challenge their aesthetics, should get down there.

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  1. mkh    Fri Mar 2, 07:44 AM #  

    Thanks for the review, Alesh. I went to last Sunday’s performances of Crises and Split Sides — my first attendance at a dance performance in probably twenty-five years — and found them fascinating and moving [pun unintended]. Then again, I like abstract expressionists, too.

  2. Verticus    Sun Mar 4, 01:12 AM #  

    Thanks for the great review. Carnival needs more of these kind of reviews— and courages choices in bookings. Now if they could only solve the parking problem and reduce prices across the board to encourage more people to attend.