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Program Note: An Event is an uninterrupted sequence of excerpts drawn from the work of Merce Cunningham. Each Event is unique, arranged specifically for each performance space. Dance and music are independent. Events performed this week include excerpts and adaptations of Variations V (1965), Scramble (1967), Changing Steps (1973), Un Jour ou Dou (1973), Rebus (1975), Squaregame (1976), Fractions (1978), Numbers (1982), Deli Commedia (1986), Points in Space (1986), and Four Lifts (1990).

I have limited exposure to the Cunningham technique and repertory, but remember seeing many Cunningham Events at the Emergency Fund for Student Dancers (EFSD) concerts throughout the years. I also attended the final Cunningham performance at the Park Avenue Armory on New Year’s Eve in 2011. This summer I took a wonderful class with former Cunningham company member Brenda Daniels at ADF and enjoyed her insights into the Cunningham work.

The eight dancers that Robert Swinston brought from Centre National de Dance Contemporanie (CNDC) to the Joyce this month are for the most part very well-trained and coached in the Cunningham aesthetic.The dancers impressed with their technical commitment to the material. I enjoyed seeing the signature Cunningham impossible balances, tilted torsos, and quicksilver use of the legs and feet.

The non-heirarchical nature of the Cunningham work appeals to the viewer through constant offering of spatial possibilities. This is an equation with a perpetual variable. X is never resolved. Rather, it is constantly shifting through fixed points in space, shapes, and sequences.

Interestingly, Cunningham eschews the narrative structure and thematic abstraction employed by earlier creators of modern dance such as Martha Graham, Jose Limon, and Paul Taylor, but retains many of the recognizable technical frameworks (use of the feet, legs, arms, head and torso) present in the cannon of modern dance and classical ballet. Although Cunningham liberates the viewer in certain terms, the dancer is still bound by the very formal convention and demanding technique Cunningham employed in creating his work.

Recent dance scholars have focused on the way Cunningham’s plotless dances inadvertently relate to identity. Ramsay Burt in The Male Dancer: bodies, spectacle, sexualities notes “Susan Foster (2001) has argued that Cunningham’s focus on formal issues has allowed him to devise a closet with which to deflect any enquiries about his homosexuality, and she and Yutian Wong (2002) both argue that he has failed to recognize the racial inequalities embodied in modern dance. Underlying [these] criticisms, I suggest, is disappointment that Cunningham had not chosen to acknowledge the potential within his work for seeing gender, sexuality, and whiteness in new ways. What then is this potential?”

From the looks of the CNDC Company, Swinston chooses not to explore the potential mentioned above but rather continues to work in the detached/indifferent Cunningham tradition in which the creator is erased from the performative equation, leaving the viewer with only traces. That being said, this Event, with it’s glorious use of space, billowing set (fauvist-feeling panels of fabric by Jackie Mattisse), and beautiful lighting (Augustin Sauldubois) is still one that I would revisit again.

Read Alastair Macaulay’s review here:


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