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The Merce Cunningham Dance Company apotheosizes chance

Merce Cunningham at 90
Merce Cunningham at 90
from the Limité blog post for Cunningham's 90th birthday

MCDC performance


For the aristocracy of the French baroque period who danced to the sort of music that Philharmonia Baroque is performing in its current run of subscription concerts (one of which will take place tonight in Berkeley), the act of dancing was one of apotheosizing humanity itself. Watching last night’s Cal Performances presentation of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company perform Roaratorio in Zellerbach Hall on the University of California campus at Berkeley, one realized that things have not changed that much over the centuries. The apotheosis is still there; it is just achieved “by other means,” as Carl von Clausewitz would have put it.

As I observed in my preview piece, Roaratorio was the result of Merce Cunningham’s decision to choreograph Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake, which John Cage had composed in 1979 for Klaus Schöning of West German Radio. The resulting score consisted of a 62-track tape mix of both musical and natural sound sources, contributions from an ensemble of Irish musicians, and a text chanted by Cage himself consisting of extracts from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Since this was prepared for radio broadcast, the entire composition had a duration of one hour.

Most important was that just about every decision that went into the making of this score involved selection by a chance procedure. (The Mode CD recording of Roaratorio includes an extended conversation in which Cage explains his methods to Schöning.) This commitment to “choose chance” rather than “chance choice” was a product Cage’s Zen conviction that any effort to “improve the world” will “only make matters worse.” Rather than imposing our decisions on the world, we should have the courage to let the world impose its decisions on us; and that is the essence of accepting the results of chance procedures.

The meticulous thoroughness of this decision methodology was honored in equal measure by Cunningham’s choreography of this score. In all likelihood this involved the steps themselves, the structuring of episodes around those steps, which dancers participated in which episodes, and probably most of the contextual factors, such as the lighting decisions and which costumes the dancers wore for which episodes. Meanwhile, Cage’s music, first experienced through a radio loudspeaker, surrounded the audience in a distribution of more loudspeakers than I was able to count; and I would be surprised if chance had not been the factor that determined which sound sources were routed to which speakers with second-by-second precision.

The usual reaction to this aleatoric methodology is to ask how it can result in anything but chaos, but this is precisely where that apotheosis of humanity itself enters the picture. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but the human mind abhors chaos. Indeed, one viable definition of “mind” would be that it constitutes the process by which we impose order on the welter of signals that are constantly bombarding our sensory organs (that "blooming, buzzing confusion" of William James). Roaratorio, as both music and dance, entices the mind to seek out its own order from what is being experienced. That “enticement” derives from the choreography offering up “seeds” around which the order may begin to form, just as dropping a microscopic crystal into a supersaturated solution of chemicals attracts those chemicals to grow the crystal to a much greater size.

As one might guess from the hints in the title, the “seeds” of the choreography can be traced back to Irish dance. However, this is not just a matter of drawing upon a lexicon of folk steps. The social context of dance itself contributed to the “seed bank,” when the dancers face each other to begin, when they stroll with interleaved arms, or when they sit on stools watching others dance. With these few cues, sensemaking can take off and do its own thing.

However, that social context introduced an element that I had not previously encountered in Cunningham’s choreography. That was the element of grace. So much of what Cunningham created seemed to be a matter of abstraction assuming a life of its own, where the dancers were there to nurse the development of that life. In Roaratorio, on the other hand, the life was in the dancers themselves; so the sensemaking resulted in depths of pure human emotion that had surfaced only in occasional suggestions in earlier works.

For all that humanity, however, this is not a dance “for” individuals. One does not go to see “star personalities” as one often does at classical ballet performances. Nevertheless, it is worth calling attention to Robert Swinston, who became Director of Choreography after Cunningham’s death and has assumed the parts that Cunningham himself once danced. As Cunningham grew older, he continued to perform; but his own participation became more one of a “monitoring observer,” always alert to what others were doing and contributing to their activities as deemed appropriate by his methods of creation. Swinston has nicely captured this particular “character element” that emerged in the creation of Roaratorio, making the result as much a celebration of Cunningham as a celebration of human nature itself.