Unlike John Cage, his associate in perpetuo who just turned respectable at 75, Merce Cunningham isn't a grand old man of the avant garde. Not yet.
Cunningham is only 68. His masterpieces--the uncompromising modern dances that ignore the modern music with which they coexist, the abstract pieces that spurn dark dramatic narratives and defy trendy psychological interpretation--still antagonize the uninitiated. Politely.
At worst, the Cunningham aesthetic tends to create an air of odd and awed perplexity.
For 90 long, strenuous, uninterrupted minutes Sunday night at the Japan America Theatre, Cunningham and his 14 dancers staged what they have come to label an "Event." The excuse for the indulgence was the multifaceted Cage celebration sponsored by the Los Angeles Festival.
Cage's contribution as official, ubiquitous "musical adviser" was limited, however, to a non-stop series of seemingly mystical incantations in the pit.
His amplified humming, meditative gurgling and probably profound keening solos, not incidentally, were complemented by a sprawling score that bounced snaps, crackles, pops, leaky-faucet imitations, microphone-static noises and electronically modified fiddling flips from loudspeaker to loudspeaker in all corners of the hall.
Cage's staunch sonic accomplices were Takehisa Kosugi, Michael Pugliese and the redoubtable David Tudor.
The music may have intrigued, even uplifted, aficionados of the otherworldly-drone-and-hiccup school. Still, on this occasion, the dance was the thing.
The dance was a vast Cunningham collage, a seamless juxtaposition of shreds and patches from works both familiar and unfamiliar, a lexicon of characteristic body maneuvers and kinetic sculptures redefined by a neutral performance context.
The bare stage and the basic costumes--a mod array of unitards--made no independent statements. Even when the works being quoted on the stage turned out to be recognizable, the arbitrary musical accompaniment did not.
The first "Event" of its kind was presented in Vienna 23 years ago. Since then, the special Cunningham Digest has played a variety of unusual locales: museums, studios, gymnasiums, even the Seventh Regiment Armory in New York.
The formal proscenium of the Japan America Theatre may not provide the ideal showplace for this sort of demonstration. The unorthodox settings, we are told, offer viewers the advantage of examining Cunningham's unique techniques and patterns from new perspectives. Here, one merely got the usual sights in reshuffled combinations, permutations and configurations.
If the evening had a formal plan of progression, the inherent logic involved nothing more complex than dynamic growth. At the outset, Cunningham concentrated on isolated dancers in slow duets. These eventually gave way to small groups moving in moderate, sometimes independent agitation. The hard-sell crowd scenes (everything is relative) came at the end.
Cunningham himself--spindly, gingerly, chronically paternal--punctuated the proceedings from time to time. He offered a nice, quirky gestural solo, a wry spin-off on ballroom-dance manners and a prickly set of contemplative poses with a chair. Even in momentary stillness, he remains a reassuring presence.
His trusty barefoot subjects assumed properly dazed airs as they leaped in fierce geometric unison, as they froze in mid-sequence, as they made the athletic look balletic and the balletic look athletic.
Their formal movements always unfolded with purposeful languor undermined by precision. Their interlocking stances embraced the fluid as well as the mechanical with artless bravura. Their flexible figures wound and unwound with muted energy. They accommodated abrupt changes in rhythm and stress without the benefit of audible cues or crutches.
One had to admire the sheer dedication, the stylistic indoctrination, the iconoclastic integrity of all concerned. This was a good evening for those concerned with historical statements and repetitive intellectual pursuits. This was a great evening for arty-mod navel-gazers.
For garden-variety dancewatchers, it was fascinating at the beginning. Then it was interesting. Then it became a bit tedious.
And then. . . .