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We’re all artists: Merce Cunningham Dance Company at Jacob’s Pillow.

Photo: Karli Cadel


By French Clements

Merce Cunningham Dance Company

Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Ted Shawn Theatre, Becket, Mass., July 25

This review describes what I saw and what I thought. Indulge me, the man is dead.

So, CRWDSPCR. (He always had great titles.) Those costumes are great. Imagine some new Scandinavian countries, and those would be their flags. Let’s call that move the windshield wiper. Talk about cute, talk about those women. Everybody up there looks really smart. I want to like the score. Not there yet. (“Be patient,” he’d say, if saying anything. Or, “who asked you to like this?” All slippery.) Whoa, Robert Swinston is still performing. Good thing he’s awesome. (Cunningham danced in every show until he was 70. Swinston has several years still.) Supposedly the dancer most like Cunningham—like Cunningham in his prime—is Rashaun Mitchell. I’ll believe it. He just shot three feet up, easy as pie. Prime is what you make of it. Mitchell goes swish when he turns, yeah, like Cunningham. It looks funny, as in fun. Swinston has soul too, smiling or thrusting his pelvis or whatever. (Tattoo this on your brain: Cunningham had soul.) Wait! Maybe I feel ashamed? Because maybe I’m bored? OK, not with Swinston, not with Mitchell. I guess that wasn’t boredom. I’m overwhelmed, distracted. Good art reminds me of philosophies for living. This one’s like “you never know what’s really happening, even as it happens.” (Is that true for death? It came in his sleep, I read. Still true there?) In no way is this score enjoyable. I’m letting go of trying, which is nice. That gaggle of rich summer-camp girls must be hating this stuff. Someone’s revulsion is palpable right now, it’s coming from them. A peek around proves it. Gymnasts stick a move and get more points. Same with these dancers. It’s been 15 minutes. The DJs are just pounding those chunky old notes deeper and deeper. As always, the score is never identical, they started tonight and everybody—everybody—heard it for the first time. Everything happens without musical cues. Feet speed up. Piggyback rides, five cents! A dog barks. The curtain closes, action going fast. Hey, I was just getting into it! I should learn what the term “hero worship” actually entails.

eyeSpace. This is the one where the audience gets crappy headphones and iPod Shuffles, loaded with stuff by Mikel Rouse. You’re supposed to play any track you want or let it go random. The music is good, sounds like Komeda or Architecture in Helsinki. I swear they just sang, “Let’s go shopping in the Gaza Strip.” (God, was Cunningham ever not cool?) Wait, there’s live music too? Ugh. That’s too much. Messing with the Shuffle means more distraction. I’m distracted. This part of the process should stay in the background. iPod’s getting shut off. Sure, I get it: Cage’s philosophy, Cunningham’s adaptation, says we’re all potential artists, everything can be art, nothing isn’t valid. But theirs is the point of view worth attention. I went to the theater for them, not for myself. (Now that’s all wrong. Why wouldn’t I be here for myself too? And what’s wrong with attending to myself?) One eyelid is pulsing to the music’s beat. It’s possible to find meaning in this. Either we’re all artists, or none of this is art. Certifiably, that backdrop is art. Day-um. One painting, Henry Samelson, Blues Arrive Not Anticipating What Transpires Even Between Themselves. Sounds about right, looks like a blue Laser Tag game shot holes through a red cartoon moon. Art: When movement, rhythmic or not, happens in silence, I listen for the rhythm reflecting itself in my mind. More shame! Cunningham’s movement seems more interesting when it’s fast. (“Don’t get down on yourself,” logic says. “Of course it’s more interesting. More output means more on your end, right?” Right, I’m good, I can do this.) Maybe I can play the shuffle again? Sure. There’s a word to describe how this work feels sometimes. The word. Is. Ummmmmm. Self-abnegating. The dance is over, and of course the iPod doesn’t know or stop. (Usually at these moments, someone knows what to do, and when. Now I’m really missing him.) Second intermission, summer-campette dialogue: “The music is just weird, you know?” “It’s not weird, it’s just awful.” (Cunningham couldn’t have heard that on Saturday, having stayed back in New York. He watched opening night from a live feed.)

The major one, Sounddance, 1975, prime stuff. Fabric covers the back wall in something like Mother Ginger’s ball gown, in gold satin. A portal at center with hanging strips of satin, as at a butcher’s entryway. Enormous groans and farts and chirrups. Swinston shoots through, smiling, in possession of some serious knowledge. Something here feels evil. I can’t help but see this piece as a series of slashes in the fabric of something much older. Everyone is dancing with the right and left sides of their bodies. Mitchell hoists himself skyward while glancing sideways at a woman. This may be what swooning feels like. Take in the total scene, how busy and fertile. Dancers, as sea polyps, waft through a marine tableau to the right. I recognize this next section. Repeatedly, in unison, thousands of brisk and tiny jumps, speeding up as all join in (all but Swinston), all popping up and down, side to side, in rigorous joy. It feels the best kind of good. Everything is happening at once. The rhythm stays in my mind, in their minds. One by one, dancers slip back through the shivering strips. Seagulls cry. Swinston vanishes.

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