The spiral of history danced through the Israel Museum, Jerusalem last Saturday, June 11, 2011 as the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performed their final museum “Event”. This exceptional performance took place as part of the Israel Festival 2011, in collaboration with the Jerusalem Season of Culture, the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, and with the support of the U.S. Embassy.
The thrill of the unexpected was palpable in the crowd, very much in the spirit of Merce Cunningham. Encounters with the unknown and unexpected are an integral element of Cunningham’s choreography, for the dancers as well as the audience. In Cunningham’s collaboration with composers such as longtime partner John Cage, the music and choreography for a dance work were created separately, with the dancers encountering the music for the first time in the performance. The dancers learn the movement in relation to time and dance by the stopwatch. During Saturday’s performance the concentration and sense of timing required was particularly impressive as the dancers had to traverse a fairly long and populated corridor between the two stages.
In the museum “Events” sections of works from the Cunningham repertoire are woven into a new sequence and set on a specific site, in this case the Cardo and Israeli Art room of the Fine Arts Wing of the museum. The music is created for each event performance in real time. The music for the “Event” at the Israel Museum was composed and performed by John King, Takehisa Kosugi, music director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and Jesse Stiles.
Trevor Carlson, Executive Director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, gathered the audience for a brief introduction to the evening, explaining that once they entered the Cardo, they would have a choice of going first to the small stage on the left or the larger stage further down the hall to the right, in the Israeli Art room. A path in the corridor was marked out in white tape for the dancers; otherwise the audience was free to move between the two stages and the trio of musicians in the Cardo.
Carlson said that the evening’s performance included selections from six decades of Cunningham’s choreography, from Totem Ancestor (1943) to a work created in 2006. One of the fascinating aspects of the “Events” is the way these different works are combined together to create a flow that works as a single performance. The abstract, non-narrative quality of Cunningham’s choreography and its independent relationship to the music facilitates this sort of recombination. The choreography was arranged by Robert Swinston, director of choreography for the company, who has been a dancer with the company since 1980.
To an audience likely to be most familiar with Israeli contemporary dance, Cunningham’s choreography is very different in approach. This evening’s sequence was abstract and formal in structure, changing configurations of shapes and relationships. Straight lines pierced the space with vitality, as if arms and legs were radians, sending energy out into the room and beyond.
A museum performance transforms both the gallery space and the performance. The dancers’ costumes – yellow, brown and orange unitards, seemed to mirror the colors of Reuven Rubin’s large painting on the wall, First Fruits (First Fruits, 1923, On loan from the Rubin Museum, Tel Aviv), while at the small stage in the Cardo, where there is no art work on display, the warm brown diagonal of the wood banister seemed to reflect the costumes and the movement. At one moment a spiral in the dance awakened the movement inherent in Efrat Natan’s sculpture Swing of the Scythe (2002). A female dancer in yellow performed a solo while on the wall beyond her Ori Reisman’s Carob Tree Boulevard (1960s) with its yellow trees and strange arrow of blue sky pointing inwards, and Yosef Zaritsky’s Painting (1964) in endless shades and shapes of blue with touches of yellow created a new layer of associations. One might almost imagine the dancer as emerging from the yellow trapezoid in the upper quadrant of Zaritsky’s painting.
It was a performance of choices, chance and challenges. One could choose between the two stages, moving from one to another, choice and chance dictating the particular sequences that one would view and the order in which they were seen. One could choose to sit in a chair, stand at the back, or sit on the floor at the dancers’ feet. Sitting so close to the performers presents a challenge to both dancer and audience, heightening the awareness of the gaze and the element of choice in the encounter – to make eye contact or not? Sitting just a breath away from the dancers, it was mesmerizing to see their virtuoso performance and to see their joy in the dance. The Merce Cunningham Company dancers are: Brandon Collwes, Dylan Crossman, Emma Desjardins, Jennifer Goggans, John Hinrichs, Daniel Madoff, Marcie Munnerlyn, Krista Nelson, Silas Riener, Jamie Scott, Robert Swinston, Melissa Toogood and Andrea Weber.
The music created a wonderful ambiance in the space and watching the three musicians was fascinating as they created the sounds filling the museum galleries. Not only did crowds gather throughout the performance, but at the end of the evening, the audience created a circle of applause around them, holding them in the warmth of their appreciation.
In addition to the “Events” at the Israel Museum, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Legacy Tour also performed “Split Sides” (2003) and “Sounddance” (1975) at the Jerusalem Theatre on June 9, 2011 in the Israel Festival 2011.