Each of the 10 or so music-less sections showed us a different way of composing movement, and the dancers had an air of intense concentration, and sometimes unexpected pleasure, that I’m sure Merce Cunningham would have welcomed.
Gym Dances. Harvard Dance Project at Harvard Dance Center, 60 Garden Street, Cambridge MA, through November 15.
By Marcia B. Siegel
When Merce Cunningham began using chance operations to structure his dances, in 1951, he overturned a swarm of conventions about choreography and performing. Chance prevented the choreographer from influencing the dance with his own intuitive or intentional choices. The chance-induced results became units of movement with timing, direction, and duration assigned in random patterns, leaving the dancer to resolve the components into something a person could perform.
Once learned, the sequence harbored many other unforeseeable factors, especially timing and focus in relation to the other dancers. Out in front of an audience, the dancers had to be hyper-aware of where they were and who else was doing something at the same time. Often there were props and lighting occurrences that they hadn’t anticipated, or costume surprises. Besides that, Cunningham’s associate, John Cage, also composed by chance, and his scores had their own built-in unpredictabilities.
Cunningham’s innovations led to generations of dance-making where the process was as important as the final product. Even if the process wasn’t evident in the performed dance, it lived on as a sort of hidden agenda that made Cunningham’s dancers more alert, more personally invested than their peers in traditional repertories, who could succumb to automatism as they strove to repeat set choreographies as faithfully as possible. Last week’s performances by the Harvard Dance Project offered three examples of this kind of thinking.
Cunningham alumnus Silas Riener directed a dozen students in the use of chance, leading to gym event for Harvard. The program indicated that the students made their own movement phrases. They then applied chance operations to determine the movement’s rhythm, repetition, and orientation to space.
Gym event was given last month at the Institute of Contemporary Art in connection with the Institute’s extraordinary show centered on Black Mountain College, where Cunningham and Cage began developing their groundbreaking work. Riener staged the Harvard performance last week as a kind of demonstration.
On Thursday, the 12 participants lined up along the stage-right wing and were called out in groups by an invisible voice. I assume the ordering of the groups was not known in advance. Each group seemed to have a limited movement vocabulary which it manipulated for a few minutes.
Starting in a tight group five dancers shared a phrase of arm gestures and pliés. The gestures got bigger; the group spread out and speeded up. They initiated changes with quick accents, segmented the moves that had been smooth, added turns. You could still see the movement seeds they’d started with.
A trio stayed together and shifted across the space with small rhythmic steps. Four women began a sequence of pivoting and posing. They all seemed to be taking their own timing, but they accidentally fell into and out of a kind of visual harmony. A group of seven did the same movement facing in different directions. Finally, they all assembled in groups of four to do a large unison phrase.
I wouldn’t say the students in gym event looked like Cunningham dancers—we couldn’t ask that of them. But the event had the open-faced feeling of Cunningham. Each of the 10 or so music-less sections showed us a different way of composing movement, and the dancers had an air of intense concentration, and sometimes unexpected pleasure, that I’m sure Cunningham would have welcomed.
In contrast, Dance Program director Jill Johnson staged Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Rosas danst Rosas, 2nd movement for the same 12 students. A stagehand pulled up the tape that had marked out the playing area of the gym event while two women danced a brief uncredited duet, possibly inserted to allow the others to change costumes—or the duet may have been part of the Rosas piece.
A program note related how this group interpreted de Keersmaeker and Thierry De Mey’s video version of her 1983 dance by subjecting it to a computer’s rearrangement, and their score consisting of numbers and letters was included. As presented, this information was nearly unintelligible to me, but the dance in performance made a lot of sense as a fascinating post-minimalist meditation on stereotypical feminine gestures.
The dancers (not all women but all dressed alike in gray T-shirts and dark miniskirts over tights) entered with wooden chairs, which they placed carefully in four rows facing into the downstage-right corner. Seated in the chairs, they did a nonstop collection of deadpan repetitions, a few moves at a time, in counterpoint rather than unison, so that there’d always be some people slouching back in their chairs while a few others were glancing sideways or crossing one leg provocatively over the other. At certain points they rearranged the chairs.
This went on for a long time, following the shifting accents in Peter Vermeersch’s percussion score. Eventually the dancers’ sweaty exhaustion began to alter their movement, making it softer or more strained. As a viewer, my attention grew sharper, deeper.
After an intermission, Johnson and visiting artist Francesca Harper, former colleagues in William Forsythe’s Frankfurt Ballet, led an open rehearsal for a piece to be performed next spring. Johnson explained that the movement had been developed from questions designed to get the dancers’ thoughts about what makes them move and how they feel about their major studies. They announced their names and major fields (anthropology to English, and beyond), then went into rehearsal mode.
With Harper in front demonstrating a basic phrase, they improvised in twos and threes, first to music of CPE Bach (I believe this gorgeous chorale came from the cantata “Welt, gute Nacht,” but Johnson’s introduction to the recording wasn’t clear). Then they played with the same movement phrase to a loud rock piece, then a slow blues piano. Johnson demonstrated another movement phrase, which the dancers improvised on in double time with unevenly spaced accents while Harper quietly read a text. The dancers may or may not have heard the words before. Cunningham-like, they didn’t give any sign of being influenced by them.
Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at The Boston Phoenix. She is a contributing editor for The Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims—The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983 to 1996, Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.