Giant's steps

By MARCIA B. SIEGEL  |  August 4, 2009

merce 3 main

CRWDSPCR (1993) is almost a textbook example of Cunningham eccentricity. When it begins, 13 dancers are evenly spaced across the stage, anchored in place as they do scattered jumps and beats of the legs. They move a little off their spots, but only after a while do you realize that the whole mass of bodies has compressed and shifted until all but four of the dancers are bunched up at the side of the stage. It's as if a forest had decided little by little to become a grove.

Three dances on this program used a large ensemble, 13, 12, and 11 dancers, assembling and dispersing, dividing into smaller units. But the space was never empty, and the energy never subsided even when the movement slowed down. In CRWDSPCR, I got a strong sense of disconnection. A dancer extends a leg, lifts an arm, twists into a new direction, then takes a step. These moves could be done all at once or in a smooth sequence, but here there are halts in between, sometimes no longer than an eye blink. But long enough to reveal the dancer's mind willing the next odd thing to happen, and the next.

CRWDSPCR is an early example of Cunningham's computer-generated dances. They didn't all come out with these hesitations, but maybe he and the dancers were learning how to internalize the instructions they got from the machine. In a post-performance talk with scholar-in-residence Maura Keefe, Robert Swinston, the company's senior dancer, pointed out how hard it was to learn a movement sequence where the leg should gesture on four counts and the arms on three. Melissa Toogood reported that after rehearsing a lot, you'd learn a path through the dance for yourself. The choreography doesn't suggest an immediate coherence, and neither did Cunningham dictate one to the dancers.

I was probably affected too by the score for CRWDSPCR, an electronically manipulated electric guitar played by John King and further altered in performance by Fast Forward and Stephan Moore. What came out was a pulsing collage of industrial noise — scratches, screeches, toneless rubbing, low loud grinding — that changed speed and pitch but didn't differentiate into complex phrasing. The regular, repeating sound held the dance together, driving it forward like a motor. Just as I thought I was beginning to hear a layer of music underneath this din, the lights went out.

It's axiomatic that sound and dancing have nothing to do with each other in a Cunningham work. All three scores at the Pillow used electronically generated sound; each produced a different dance atmosphere — accidental match-ups as effective as if they'd been planned.

eyeSpace (2006) offered the audience the chance to listen to various tracks on borrowed iPods. I passed up the iPod and settled for "ambient sound," which turned out to be not the sound of the theater that afternoon but low-tech voices, street noise, faraway clangs and rumbles — possibly a recording made on a hot afternoon in an urban studio. The dance had a convivial feeling to it, with small groups playing gesture games and follow-the-leader, hopping and bouncing together, changing positions together. I wonder whether the iPod would have uncovered a totally different dance.

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