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June 6, 2010

Revisiting "Roaratorio"

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Merce Cunningham (1919-2009) was one of modern art's most significant innovators, an artist committed to creating new dance forms. He pulled apart all the rules of dance and presented compositions that did not contain the expected guideposts, such as any narrative, or music that matched or propelled the movements. The dancing seemed to defy internal kinetic logic. He was obsessed with looking forward rather than dwelling on the works of the past, even his own. That most likely explains why "Roaratorio," his dance created to avant-garde composer John Cage's recorded soundscape "Roaratorio, an Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake," had such a short life span. Inspired by James Joyce's fiendishly complex last novel "Finnegans Wake," "Roaratorio" was performed at five different venues between 1983 and 1987 and then never seen again.

Until now. "Roaratorio" is one of seven pieces being revived for the Legacy Tour, Merce Cunningham Dance Company's two-year, worldwide circuit that will culminate in a Dec. 31, 2011, farewell show in New York City. After that, the revolutionary company will be disbanded, though a school and a small troupe will continue, according to Cunningham dancer and director of choreography Robert Swinston. (The exact number of Legacy Tour revivals is still under discussion.)

Swinston and former Cunningham company dancer Patricia Lent pieced together "Roaratorio" using videotapes, their memories of performing it, and Cunningham's notes -- a task which, after 23 years, must have been somewhat like trying to rebuild Humpty Dumpty. The restaging had its world premiere at the Walt Disney Concert Hall this weekend. I went to see it on Saturday night.

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As it happens, I also saw the original "Roaratorio," at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in October 1986. Pack rat that I am, I have the program and the review I wrote (for The Brooklyn Paper). I even have the handwritten notes I took during the performance. I could not, however, bring the piece to mind at all.

And that is emblematic of my conundrum with Cunningham's oeuvre -- I have never found my own way in. I intellectually appreciate the radical innovations that Cunningham pioneered, not just for modern dance, but for all the arts. Yet there have been few blips in my own tepid feelings toward the work after almost 30 years of watching Cunningham's dances; I cannot muster a piquant emotional response to them. Cunningham's style and body vocabulary have always struck me as unnaturally constrained, walled in by the very unorthodox and innovative processes that he used to create them. The dancers -- who invariably execute the steps perfectly, I should add -- sometimes have a robotic appearance: Their upper bodies are controlled and stiff, their arms held low by the hips, while feet and legs dash about marking out complex rhythms, which appear like the fluttering of wings, without serving any purpose. Rather than the dance changing my perception of space and time, I see flat, paper dolls drifting along regular planes. 

Years ago, at the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center, I glanced up from a video I was watching and spied a Cunningham dance under way on the monitor in the next viewing room. A much younger Cunningham bounded about; his fellow dancers were swift and unpredictable. I recall being mesmerized, and not just by Cunningham, who was recognized as a virtuoso in his early years. The piece was filled with surprises, with wonder. Here, then, was what had so shocked and amazed everyone. The "Aha!" moment.

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I did not find that kind of revelatory reward in "Roaratorio" on Saturday. I did, though, experience a sense of joy from this playful, 60-minute piece. I also found it much easier to follow the choreography's patterns and structure, which were clear compared to more recent Cunningham pieces. The dance benefitted from a non-proscenium stage setting, and Disney Hall gave the audience a wide, bright view of the action (the excellent lighting design was by Mark Lancaster with Christine Shallenberg).

Much of the piece is executed at a brisk tempo -- many little jigs and fast beats, dancers scurrying from one side of the stage to the other. One couple exits stage right, and another joins the group; en masse everyone makes their way to the left, where another couple exits, making way for a third to join, and so on. In a pre-performance lecture, Lent noted the piece has five main pas de deux; I didn't keep track, but noted couples often holding hands, or entire groups of seven linked together. "Roaratorio" oozes human warmth.

Favorite moments: A big circle with dancers leaping in unison about the stage, the roundness of the circle a welcome departure from the angularity of the rest. A gentle syncopated waltz for one couple, then another, with the rhythm accentuated by an extra knee bend at each step. Swinston danced Cunningham's parts, but more fully than Cunningham could have done in 1986 (when he was 67) -- there were the fussy feet, and the semaphore arm gestures in a solo. In a later section for six, Swinston lay on the ground, and the three women reached down and touched him. It was a poignant connection that took on a whole new meaning as we approach the first anniversary of Cunningham's passing. Almost at the end, all 15 dancers posed facing front, a tableau reminiscent of a multigenerational family portrait. 

Barstools are used for the scenic design of "Roaratorio." The dancers sat on them when not performing. They tied brightly colored T-shirts, leg warmers, pants and skirts to the chairs, then untied them and randomly wore the clothing throughout the night, the colors adding pointillist vibrancy to the dance. The barstools started out on the left (from the audience's perspective), and got carried first to center stage, then to the right. The dance ended with the performers carrying the stools off on the right. There was little that was symbolic about the stools, yet there was an unmistakable sense of a journey having unfolded before us as they were removed.

I consciously focused my attention on the dancing and not on Cage's score, a layered jumble of noises (sheep bleating, baby crying), traditional Irish music, Cage reading from the Joyce work, and more. The dance tapestry was more than enough.

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"Roaratorio" photos from top: Cathy Kerr and Merce Cunningham (photo by Delahaye, courtesy John Cage Trust); company members perform the piece in 1983 (photo by Bernand); Andrea Weber, Jamie Scott and Robert Swinston in the current revival (photo by Anna Finke, courtesy Merce Cunningham Dance Company); company members perform the reconstructed work (photo by Anna Finke, courtesy Merce Cunningham Dance Company).

June 6, 2010 5:56 PM | | Comments (0)

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