Like the closing of a well-made box

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday March 8, 2011
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The Merce Cunningham Dance Company played Berkeley last weekend for the 26th – and last – time. It was great that the dancers looked so sharp, since it was an emotional occasion. The house was full of former dancers who'd come down from the mountains, from all across the country, to see these dances, maybe for the last time. It threatened to rain outdoors and in. Both shows were gloriously danced, by a company that's never looked more at ease and idiomatic in the enormously difficult moves Cunningham devised.

Their first show here, in 1962, and their last both featured the hilarious Antic Meet,   a vaudeville in 10 scenes set to some of John Cage's Dadaist music. It's still zany, the timing is so stinging, like a Nichols/May comedy sketch – you don't have to know when he's sending up Martha Graham, it's riotous anyway. The first time they did Antic Meet in Wheeler Auditorium (Zellerbach Hall did not yet exist) could not have been much funnier than last Friday night's whip-smart performance, even though the first cast included Cunningham himself and the elfin Remy Charlip.

Cunningham (b. 1919) and his partner Cage were at the very center of the cultural avant-garde in New York at mid-century. The pre-Stonewall era is hard to imagine now, but clearly the "Homintern" (as Auden called it) was the cutting edge of the Dadaist cutting edge. Cunningham and Cage may have been more important to the intellectual life of New York than even Balanchine and New York City Ballet, though really, who's counting? Certainly they were closer to Marcel Duchamp and the New York painters – without whose generosity Cunningham's enterprise might never have survived long enough to get seen. It was Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and others who sold some of their paintings to get enough money together to keep the company afloat, and send it on tour to London, where the awestruck reviews in the press made New York critics take notice.

Cunningham took Martha Graham's movements and removed the psychological explanations for them, linked the moves as arbitrarily as possible (tossing coins to determine the order of steps), but kept a kind of harmony to the palate, then asked you to look at how beautiful it was.

Cunningham and Cage were like a binary star: they lived together ("John cooks, I do the dishes"), worked together, and their work is like that: Modern Dance and Modern Music under one roof, on the same stage, at the same time, independent but synchronous. So there's typically too much going on for the mind to take it in, way too much for "the tired businessman" (which is how Matisse characterized his patron), who usually can be counted on to get up in the middle of a piece and walk out. In 20 years of my seeing them, numbers of people have always walked out in a huff. I've learned always to take a nap before going.

For example, Sounddance (which closed Friday night's mixed bill) made me nearly bolt and leave the first time I saw it (in Zellerbach some 15 years ago). David Tudor's music assaults you (it sounds like jackhammers, horrible buzzing noises, squeaks, pops, at colossal decibels), coming at you from loudspeakers staggered around the house, and the dancers rush in through hidden folds in a tangled-draperied backdrop of a hideous mustard color. They're wearing sky-blue leggings, which is a relief, since their tops are the same color as the drop and you can't see them clearly, except for the legs, except to tell that it looks like warfare. The dancers make a beautiful web, moving violently fast, and then begin to disappear back into the tangle from which they came. The last person off was the first to come on, and it seems like he has conjured them all and then gone back into the maw. Friday night I could see the geometry clearly for the first time, and I found myself wanting them to turn up the sound. It ought to make us scream.

Both Sounddance and Roaratorio (which lasts an hour exactly, and formed the only piece on Saturday night's show) are inspired by Finnegan's Wake, the notoriously difficult novel by James Joyce. Hundreds of pages of glorious language that does not make sense in any obvious way but throws up phrases like "Haggis takes no prisoners" on every page. Cage made a score to this using found sounds (dogs barking, babies crying, church bells, railroad noises, rain, crowds roaring, gun-shots) and snatches from Irish folk-songs and -dances that assault you at random. To this, Cunningham has created something that looks like a Dadaist Riverdance, an almost-recognizable Irish world that seems like a family – dances that children might do, others for old people, jigs and reels, or slow-partnered dances that evoke the idea of your grandparents dancing at their wedding. The footwork is of the highest virtuosity – it put me in mind of Irish lace and Waterford cut-glass. Robert Swinston, who was Cunningham's personal assistant and has been a dancer in the company since 1980, seemed the paterfamilias to this group, leading off the slow dance with the gorgeous Jamie Scott, who at times reminds me of Rita Hayworth – her lines and her action are so voluptuous, it's like the whole body is smiling – and gathering them all up for their exit. The piece ends with an almost audible click, like the closing of a well-made box.

Wonderful dancing from everyone, especially Daniel Madoff and Dylan Crossman in Antic Meet, Rashaun Mitchell, John Hinricks, Jennifer Goggins, Emma Desjardins, Silas Riener with his elfin feet.