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Truly cunning choreography

Pop music and pure chance drive the latest work by Merce Cunningham, 84.

October 16, 2003|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The sound from the balconies -- roars, really -- as the curtain went up at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Tuesday for the premiere of a dance by Merce Cunningham was something new for this remarkable 84-year-old choreographer, celebrated though he may be. It was more like what you'd expect to hear from fans at a rock concert by Radiohead. In fact, it was Radiohead fans, and they had just spotted the band in the pit. The arty Icelandic rock group Sigur Ros was also on hand.

Cunningham is happiest when he can create a situation in which no one knows what to expect -- not his audience, not his dancers or collaborators, not least himself. So to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, he came up with some of his wildest cards yet. For this high Modernist choreographer, the use of pop rather than the company's trademark ultra-avant-garde music would once have been unthinkable.

But also once-unthinkable is the way Cunningham has managed to become a cultural icon and still stay a step ahead of his audiences. His totemic status was much in evidence at Tuesday's gala, the only occasion at which Radiohead and Sigur Ros would appear live with the dancers. "Merce, you are the greatest," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said when he introduced the choreographer.

Standing next to the mayor and Cunningham were the artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, who were among the "dice-throwers" for this performance. All the elements of the new work, called "Split Sides" -- dance, music, costumes, decor, lighting -- are deployed in two 20-minute parts and are independent of each another. Each evening, dice are to be thrown five times to determine the order of the dancing, the bands and James Hall's costumes (one set black and white, the other color); of separate backdrops by British artist Catherine Yass and an 18-year-old Kansas high school student, Robert Heishman; and of James F. Ingalls' different lighting schemes. There are 32 possible permutations. The logistics of it all are daunting.

It was hardly surprising, however, that the bands got the most attention Tuesday, and their presence created no small amount of chaos, with added security and what-all.

"Are you out of your mind? We've been sold out since June," someone in the box office told one disappointed would-be audience member. A critic was offered $500 for his ticket.

What was surprising was just how restrained and respectful -- maybe even a little cowed by the high-culture surroundings -- the rock stars were. On Tuesday, Radiohead came first. Though accustomed to operating within short song forms, the band here readily slipped into a hypnotic, extended 20-minute composition by using engaging repeated patterns, long guitar and vocal drones, and percolating electronic sounds that occasionally mimicked Steve Reich's early tape-loop style.

Sigur Ros got fancier. They began with amplified music boxes and moved on to hitting and rubbing toe shoes in which they had placed microphones. You could almost hear the gasps, though, when the band, watching the performance, tried to create effects parallel with the choreography, such as a ratcheting noise during a dancer's turn.

Yet although it was a violation of the notion in Cunningham's work that music and dance are free to be independent, the effect proved curiously endearing. It was as if these young musicians were so entranced by what they were witnessing that they couldn't resist reacting. A huge swell of sound at the end was, I thought, wonderful.

Meanwhile, serious Mercists have nothing to fear. When "Split Sides" is repeated tonight through Saturday and then taken to Europe, most of the music will be on tape, with experienced company musicians playing the music boxes and toe shoes, their eyes firmly averted from the stage.

The most impressive aspect of this first performance was how well all the indeterminate aspects worked together. In fact, it was hard to imagine how any other arrangement could work better.

As is typical of Cunningham's work, the dancing always looked new and unexpected. Varied from moment to moment, it ran the gamut from solemnity to whimsy to sheer mass exhilaration. If the music, the stunning movement and all the rest were not exactly made for one another, each element did appear made in such a way as to perfectly illuminate the other components. Chalk up one more triumph for Cunningham.

The program began with the New York premiere of last year's "Fluid Canvas," a beautiful and more experimental work with a lively electronic score by John King and an aqueous multimedia backdrop. And the evening began with a dinner and ended with a party, the latter including outrageous performances by Ethel Merman and Judy Garland imitators.

When asked what he thought of all the hoopla, Cunningham laughed and said, "Well, I guess it's show business."

After the company's BAM engagement, it will not present "Split Sides" again in the United States until its 2004-05 season. While nothing is yet set for Los Angeles, UCLA impresario David Sefton was at the performance, and he said he was more than interested. Many were interested in him as well. He was dressed in a kilt.

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