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Merce Cunningham's 'Roaratorio'

The choreographer transformed 'Finnegans Wake' into a performance piece, with the help of John Cage and a troupe of Irish musicians. Now, a new realization of it will be performed at Disney Hall.

May 30, 2010|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • John Cage, left, profoundly influenced partner Merce Cunningham.
John Cage, left, profoundly influenced partner Merce Cunningham. (Steven Mark Needham, Associated…)

Reporting from New York — In fall 1986, as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival, John Cage delivered, in his uniquely spoken-sung fashion, poetic texts he had derived from James Joyce's readably unreadable comic novel "Finnegans Wake." Irish musicians played and sang traditional Irish music. An electronic collage of sounds and ambient noises indicated in the "Wake" ran throughout the performance sometimes drowning out all else. Merce Cunningham added invented Irish dances — jigs and reels and the like — abstracted and combined into a Cubist Irish dance canvas.

The din of these sounds and sights, their interactions and assertions of independence, the sheer vastness of materials, suggested the whole world concentrated into that space. Lasting exactly 60 minutes, "Roaratorio" proved my most joyous, exhilarating, uplifting and sensory-intensive hour in the theater.

Premiered in France three years earlier, the work was presented in this form only once after that, the following summer at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the London Proms. Cage died in 1992. Cunningham used individual dances from "Roaratorio" in a series he called "Events," but he refused to revive the full work, so crucial did he feel was the personal participation of Cage and the individual Irish players. Most of them are also now gone, and when Cunningham died at age 90 last summer, "Roaratorio" seemed no longer even dimly viable.

But Cage loved to quote his inventor father as saying that when someone says something is impossible, that shows you what to do. On June 4, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company — without John or Merce or the singer Joe Heaney or any of the other Irish — will premiere a new realization of "Roaratorio" at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, where, as at the Albert Hall, it will be danced in the round. It will likely be the last time Los Angeles will host the Cunningham company, which after its founder died embarked on a two-year "Legacy Tour." The company will disband with a farewell performance in New York on New Year's Eve 2011.

Restoring "Roaratorio" is a crazy idea, but maybe not so impossible or inappropriate as it first seems. I still recall the presence in the performance of Cage, Cunningham and the Irish musicians. The soundscape I know well, since it has long been available on recording. The actual choreography has mostly faded from my memory, however.

But watching the company's ebullient run-through without music last week at Westbeth, Cunningham's studio in Greenwich Village, the wonderful feel of "Roaratorio" came rushing back.

Robert Swinston, who was Cunningham's assistant, was in the performances in the '80s. For the revival, he dances Cunningham's role, along with part of his original role. The rest of the company consists of young dancers, many of whom were not even born when this work was created.

The next day, Patricia Lent, a former Cunningham dancer, who, with Swinston, was responsible for restoring the choreography, explained over the phone what was involved.

Parts of the dance are actually quite simple, she said, and she has long taught them to intermediate dance students as a way of introducing Cunningham technique. But putting the whole shebang together was another story.

First, there is no one "Roaratorio," a work Cunningham mounted on only five occasions. "Since the dance was not in the regular repertory," she noted, "every time we put it together was a major event. There were always cast changes and Merce kept redoing the dance. He made a new ending for BAM."

Nonetheless, with Cunningham's notebooks and archival films of the performances to fill in gaps from their memory, she and Swinston were able to re-create the mayhem, which sometimes, she said, had two, three or even four things going on at the same time.

There may be instances of simple movement, but the sequences can verge on the impossible to remember. "Merce," Lent recalled, "loved to produce brain teasers. In terms of the movement, there was no reason it had to be so complicated. But Merce found it interesting to get people thinking onstage."

As for the music, Cunningham's feeling that no one could replace Cage or the Irish performers will be honored, which simplifies things greatly. An eight-channel surround-sound installation has been made from the original materials and will be used. However much live performers are missed, this new multitrack recording of all the original performers and the electronic soundscape effectively replicates the extraordinarily obsessive and excessive nature of Cage's work.

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