At the intermission of White Bird’s latest production, Merce Cunningham at 100, tears began falling out of my eyes. And at first, it was hard to pinpoint what was happening or why. Why did “Beach Birds,” performed by French troupe Compagnie Centre National de Danse-Angers (CNDC-Angers), create such intense feelings of emptiness and loneliness?
As you probably gathered, Merce Cunningham at 100 is a tour that marks one hundred years since Cunningham was born in Centralia, WA. A dancer, choreographer, and founder of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC), Cunningham is considered profoundly influential, and not just in the world of modern dance. Through his collaborations, Cunningham left his mark on avant-garde art, across mediums.
But he wrote like he was high. The liner notes of the program contained some of Cunningham's notes on “Beach Birds,” and this is what he opened with:
I had three things in mind: one was birds, or animals or whatever, but also humans on the beach and also one of those things that I love so much on the shore - the way you are looking at a rock and you go around it, and it looks different each time, as though it were alive too.
The eleven CNDC-Angers dancers were utterly successful, in their bi-colored black and white unitards, at behaving like beach birds—the upper, black part of their costumes made them look like the 'M' shapes that birds in flight make against a sunset. The piece was paired with a John Cage score, which cycled through the watery sounds of a rain stick, the high strings of a violin (whose piercing whine approached feedback speaker effect), and the occasional, firm piano tone. It was an abstract beach, full of life, choreographed to suggest the capricious-seeming, but highly-intentional movements of nature.
The movements between performers felt almost social. Dancers came together in pairs and triads, then one or more peeled off to perform repetitive motions, or make a collaborative shape of their bodies with new or established groups. I wondered: what if this whole piece were about social changes? Xavier is staying with Brian and Mari while he gets back on his feet, but it's uncomfortable to have three people in their small house. After a time, he starts working with a bunch of people who hold their legs up for long periods. It felt like an eleven-person Saint Elmo's Fire. But it was also birds on a beach.
Both “Beach Birds” and the dance which followed, "Biped," were directed by Robert Swinson who danced and choreographed in the MCDC for 30+ years, and who has spent much of his career reconstructing and directing Merce Cunningham performances.
The thing people were most excited for in "Biped" was the motion captured forms that Cunninham created, in 1999, with digital artists Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar. So around the same time Andy Serkis was covered in foam dots, being captured for his performance as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings, Cunningham was trying to take his own dancers digital.
In "Biped" the captured dance "phrases" were projected onto a transparent screen, which covered the stage. This, in its most successful moments, led to the CNDC-Angers dancers sharing floorspace with ethereal giants. I craved a moment when the projections and performers would interact, but it never came. What did come were beautiful horizontal lines, which felt a little like auras or warnings that the ghostly computer-generated titans were about to return.
Some of the projections were more successful than others. Some of them looked like spiders (!), and I wonder how that went for anyone afraid of spiders. I am not, but I am ready to admit that "Beach Birds" so thoroughly destroyed me that my ability to interact with "Biped" suffered. As a result, the second performance felt a little too long. I mention this buffeted by the fact that when the curtain came down at "Biped"'s uncertain end, someone sitting near me mumbled, "Thank you, Jesus."
But please don't be dissuaded from Merce Cunningham at 100 because of me and the thank-you-Jesus person. Both performances were magical and obviously impactful. If anything, there was too much art for one sitting, and I was overwhelmed by their strength.
(The Compagnie Centre National de Danse-Angers has two more shows! Fri Nov 22 & Sat Nov 23, 7:30 pm, Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, $26)