Archives 2010-11

Primrose MacFay reviews

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company

at the Barbican Centre, London

“Nearly Ninety”

30 October 2010

For all our longstanding complaints about the impossibility of simply finding the way to the Barbican Centre, not to mention finding the way around it once there, on an evening such as this you have to pinch yourself for the good fortune of being the privileged consumer of all the Barbican has to offer. Do I wax too lyrical?  I don’t think so.

 In getting involved with the MCDC booking at all – and what a coup that was – the Barbican yet again reminds us what a world-class venue is all about:  one pleasure after another – whether it’s the stunning performance itself or the superb visibility from every seat or the smooth running of the restaurant and bars or the rare abundance of ladies’ lavatories.  Even the audience was a pleasure, I thought, which is quite something coming from someone whose great joy is to watch a show that almost nobody else has come to see. In this case the house was packed to the gills, there was noisy hilarity beforehand, vile slopping of fizzy drinks inside the auditorium and then ice-cream gobbling at interval (in New York – one stops to observe – theatres forbid the combination of such pleasures). But when Cunningham’s difficult, long, two-part, fine-honed work of genius began, the entire audience was transfixed. It was evident from the quality of attention that nobody wanted the evening to end.

 Nearly Ninety by Merce Cunningham (1919-2009) was devised not long before his death last year at 90. He bequeathed it to his company for them to continue performing it on a world tour for the two years following his death, as part of his carefully worked out “Legacy Plan”. On 30 October 2010 the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performed on British soil for almost the last time: there’ll be a UK finale in the first week of October 2011.

 It’s an extraordinary thought. Anyone reading this review may be presumed to be interested in contemporary dance.  Your entire life’s experience of dance will have been influenced by this man, an influence alien to anyone living before 1953 when Cunningham first formed his company – which will soon be history.

 The show itself is breath-taking. Unsurprisingly, the dancers are all outstanding, each obviously selected not just for his or her technical skills but for being able naturally to exhibit a seriousness of the body, a transparency of spirit – for want of more material terminology –  which reveals itself in the process of the dance.

 Amongst  those who shone brightest on the last night itself, perhaps, were Marcie Munnerlyn, Jennifer Goggans and Emma Desjardins. Munnerlyn’s interpretation of Cunningham’s intention is exceptional to witness – consistently intelligent, light but controlled, always exquisite of its kind.

 “Nearly Ninety” was Cunningham’s last major work. He must have prepared this production as a knowing tribute both to all he himself had achieved and as his trademark homageto the miracle of the silent body in space, its contained completeness, its infinity of possibilities.

 What the dancers explore is not so much dance as we know it commonly but movement in space with no props beyond the nearest bodies. Not even the marvelous, insistent sound is a prop. It is rather the medium in which the dancer operates,  a complex, separate entity.

 The set is for the sound, not the dancers. It is a cage, a scaffold, a towering, random conglomeration of metal rods, a giant moving podium which could as well be a reconstituted electricity pylon which just happens to double as the source of sound.  One might suppose that the thing itself is a crazy metallic musical instrument.

 The musicians and sound technicians are carefully arranged on different levels.  The set’s emanations, the metallic electronic sounds which surround the dancer, or rather, in which they move, are in striking contrast to the fluid, interweaving, human body shapes working to achieve a very different outcome.

 The dancers’ costumes are plain leotards, sometimes including a gloved hand at the end of one arm.  They are cut across in dark and light jagged shapes which contradict any notion of a body’s symmetry; at the same time the shapes quote from the angular effect of the veiled and unveiled set upstage, the lights and video upon it, its shadows.

 Cunningham’s premises are so convincing and coherent that it becomes inevitable and correct that the moving body’s timing should bear no direct relation to the sound’s.  Indeed, in a few spare bars towards the end of the second half,  when the dancers slip into syncing with the music, smiling at themselves as they slide into a momentarypas de trois which gestures towards classical ballet, the effect is quaint, childlike, amusing. But one is pleased, relieved, when they return to form, to a focus on the body rather than on steps or on musical music,  to an exploration of what matters.

 A night to remember. M.C., R.I.P.


“Nearly Ninety”

Choreographer: Merce Cunningham
Composers: John Paul Jones, Takehisa Kosugi and Sonic Youth.
Décor by Benedetta Tagliabue
Costumes by Romeo Gigli for io ipse idem
Lighting by Brian MacDevitt
Video by Franc Aleu
Dancers: Brandon Collwes, Dylan Crossman, Jullie Cunningham, Emma Desjardins, Jennifer Goggans, John Hinrichs, Daniel Madoff, Marcie Munnerlyn, Silas Riener, Jamie Scott, Melissa Toogood, Andrea Weber.
Musicians: Takehisa Kosugi, John Paul Jones and Neokarma Jooklo Experience: Maurizio Abate, Virginia Genta, Polo Pascolo, David Vanzan.

UK finale scheduled for 3-8 October 2011.

Dance Umbrella project, co-commissioned by the Barbican; Brooklyn Academy of Music; Comunidad de Madrid-Teatros Canal and Festival Internacional Madrid en Danza; Théâtre de la Ville-Paris and Festival d’Automne à Paris.


Primrose MacFay

31 Oct 2010