You’ll Take the Dance You’re Given, but You Can Call the Tune

From left, Cédric Andrieux, Jonah Bokaer and Brandon Collwes of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing in a new work, “eyeSpace,” at the Joyce Theater.

Published: October 12, 2006

The Joyce Theater is a good place to see the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. These days the company usually plays in larger public spaces. At the Joyce, which seats fewer than 500, the dancers and the dance are relatively intimate.

Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times
Audience members donned headphones for iPods before the show.

Mr. Cunningham’s is an intimate art, despite all the dazzle of the décor he gets from mostly famous artists. The dancers hop and bend and extend and sometimes interact, and it can all look pretty much the same if you aren’t playing close attention. Intimacy encourages close attention.

The program for this week’s run, seen at the opening on Tuesday night, offers a new, a newish and an old piece. The new one, “eyeSpace,” accompanied by a Mikel Rouse score set to shuffle mode on individual iPods, was the novelty, and an appealing one.

But the opening “Scenario Minievent” had its charms, and the middle piece, “Crises,” from 1960, offered a piquant indication of the evolution of Mr. Cunningham’s style.

“Scenario” dates from 1997 and was turned into one of Mr. Cunningham’s excerpted (and presumably shuffled) “events” this year. What is most striking about it are Rei Kawakubo’s bizarre costumes with their Surrerealist lumps and distortions (humps, big rear ends and the like). They are in mostly vertical blue stripes on white or in a sickly pale green-and-white checked pattern. For most of the 30 minutes five or six dancers twist and pose, each in his or her own space, although there is an amusing rush of additional dancers toward the end. David Behrman and Takehisa Kosugi provided the bumptious and consoling live electronic music.

“Crises,” staged by Carolyn Brown and Carol Teitelbaum this year, uses a sequence of Conlon Nancarrow’s “Studies for Player Piano,” which sound like fractured ragtime. Here there are actual musical sequences, and the five dancers worked away, sometimes touching and lifting one another, more deliberately than in much of Mr. Cunningham’s more recent choreography, and always demonstrating exquisite bodily control.

Mr. Cunningham, now 87, has long been fascinated with technological innovations, and there can be a whiff of gimmickry in his use of them. The new “eyeSpace” worked well, with one reservation. Mr. Rouse’s score blends rock and folk-rockish vocals with electronic instrumentals and an urban soundscape. The handsome blue costumes and backdrop — blue against an intensely saturated red — are by Henry Samelson. The 12 dancers twisted and gyrated, mostly in subgroups of diminishing size, though one’s attention was sometimes distracted by the novelty of Mr. Rouse’s presentation of his music and by the audience fumbling with the iPods, most of which were on loan from the lobby.

What was thrilling about hearing the music this way was how personal it was. We were all cocooned in our own worlds, hearing something different, just for us. “All the audience members have their own secret, their own special version,” Mr. Rouse was quoted as saying in Time Out New York. It was the purest realization of Mr. Cunningham’s chance aesthetic, the ultimate in intimacy.

But my reservation is this: Mr. Rouse and Stephan Moore, seated at keyboards by the stage, chose to add a general sonic racket through loudspeakers (city noises, subway announcements) that was audible through the earphones. Maybe for some this further juxtaposition of public and private was interesting. I found it distracting. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company continues through Sunday at the Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue, at 19th Street, Chelsea; (212) 242-0800 or

Arts Random acts of dance

iPods cause a real shuffle when Merce Cunningham lets chance dictate the moves and the music in ‘eyeSpace’


Special to Newsday   October 8, 2006

When choreographer Merce Cunningham’s “eyeSpace” opens Tuesday, the Joyce Theater will be handing out iPods. The eclectic score is a stream of guitar-plucked song, glimmers of bossa nova, prepared-piano glissandos, electronic burbles and enigmatic verse, but how much you hear will depend entirely on you and that iPod.
If you set the slim white box on shuffle, it will randomly order the 10 tracks. The score lasts 60 minutes, the dance takes only 20, so that amounts to 5,047 possible listening experiences.

Or you could treat the iPod like a regular old tape player, beginning with track 1 and continuing straight through until the curtain falls sometime during track 4. Or you could just keep the buds out of your ears and stick to the “live” component rising from the musicians’ computers in the pit.

You could even opt for Megadeth, smuggled from home. Composer Mikel Rouse says, “I hope you wouldn’t encourage that in your article.”

But he and Cunningham are giving the audience that choice, though. “It’s like Cage and Cunningham on steroids!” Rouse exclaims.

He’s referring to the chance procedures that Cunningham, now 87, and the late composer John Cage, his longtime partner, pioneered together. More than half a century ago, Cunningham began rolling dice to determine the order, rhythm, duration and direction of the movement, as well as how many dancers would execute each phrase and in which configurations.

“My use of chance methods is not a position I wish to die defending,” the choreographer wearily noted early in his career, when he probably feared he would die defending it. “It is a present mode of freeing my imagination from its own cliches.” His aim has been to “make a space in which anything can happen, the way nature makes a space and puts lots of things in it, heavy and light, little and big, all unrelated, yet each affecting all the others.”

Serendipity abounds

To that end, Cunningham has not only deployed serendipity to make the dances, but also unstrung those dances from the music and decor. Composer, visual artist and choreographer work independent of each other. When the curtain rises, only time, space and the viewer’s imagination unite their three creations.

The iPod pushes this deliberate anarchy a step further. Up until “eyeSpace,” audience members at least were listening to the same music, whatever they each made of it. Now, they may be watching the same dance, “but they’re having a private experience with the sound,” Rouse explains. “What happens when you ask people to have both a shared and a private experience at the same time? I don’t think that’s exactly happened before. The question is, what is a theatrical experience?”

The question that led to the iPod innovation wasn’t so philosophical. A few years ago, the Museum of Modern Art invited Cunningham to stage one of his “Events” upon the opening of its renovated quarters. (An Event is a time-collage of excerpts from Cunningham’s repertory, designed for a specific site and occasion.) A Cunningham dance typically takes up lots of space; the choreographer wondered whether his dancers could travel between the new smaller galleries, with onlookers following in their wake. But what to do about the music, wedded as it was to stationary computer modules?

Someone thought of that babbling museum fixture, the audio guide – and then remembered its younger, hipper cousin.

High and difficult art

Cunningham has a reputation for Difficult Art. On the high-culture scale, he’s considered so high you would need a telescope. But difficulty for its own sake has never been his point. As the iPod incident makes clear, he simply wants to make art possible, given the inevitable obstacles of psychology and circumstance.

“When I choreograph a piece by tossing pennies – by chance, that is – I am finding my resources in that play, which is not the product of my will,” Cunningham once wrote. “I am in touch with a natural resource far greater than my own personal inventiveness could ever be.”

In the case of the iPods, the boxy confines of MOMA’s reconfigured galleries served as that resource.

When you work in theater, you don’t have to go looking for challenging impediments. They will find you, what with “the deadlines, the putting up and taking down, the moving about from place to place, the wear and tear and repair, the community of personalities with its … aches and pains and religions and diets,” as an exasperated Jasper Johns once put it during his long tenure as the company’s art adviser.

Johns liked to exclaim, “I hate the theater!” But Cunningham? If he weren’t deeply in love with the whole messy enterprise, how could he have stood all the opportunities for mishap that his method guarantees?

Actor-dancer Valda Setterfield, a company member for 10 years starting in 1965, holds that a love of risk is essential for this work. “If you didn’t relish the unexpectedness that happens with the freedom given to the components of the piece – the costumes, the lighting, the sound – it was probably very hard. Merce was in it for any adventure that might come up.”

Cunningham once advised, “Don’t think that because it isn’t what it is supposed to be, you shouldn’t do it. Go ahead and do it.” Ask Cunningham dancers or production staff about fiascos they remember, and they draw a blank. “Nothing ever feels like a snafu with Merce,” explains the company’s executive director, Trevor Carlson.

Setterfield remembers a nettlesome bit in “RainForest” (1968), a twitchy dance with silver Mylar pillows by Andy Warhol wafting about. She had to drop quickly to the floor and let Cunningham yank her up. She hadn’t had much time to practice.

“I was quite sure Merce would pull me off my feet, because he had such amazing speed,” she recalls. But as the moment approached, “I decided that if I really gave him my weight and I really dropped down, then he would catch me.” He did, and Setterfield was so delighted that she plummeted and bounced back up more times than the choreography required. “You could do that kind of thing with him.” Says Carlson, “Merce doesn’t ever go back to, ‘Well, this worked before.'”

Using non-theater artists

For “eyeSpace,” neither did his collaborators. Since the company’s beginnings in the early ’50s, when Robert Rauschenberg made the sets and costumes, Cunningham has worked with artists, not professional set and costume designers. Artists aren’t necessarily used to working with the “wear and tear and repair” of theater. For painter Henry Samelson, chosen for “eyeSpace,” the biggest adjustment was one of scale.

In his enamel-on-aluminum paintings, tubular forms topple like excited exclamation points, black holes splatter the ground and thought bubbles cluster together – all in unpredictably lovely color combinations. You want to fall into the world of the painting, or at least, hold it in your hands. At the painting’s original size of a 24 by 12 inches, you can. For the Joyce, the painting had to be scanned and enlarged on canvas to 55 feet across and 22 feet high.

“I had to incorporate enough information that it would be interesting large,” Samelson says. “I didn’t want it to be so busy that it distracted from the dance, but I did want a bit of an epic quality. Small, the work’s more of a one-liner.”

To prepare for his Cunningham debut, the painter spent time in the company’s video archives. He was particularly struck by the dancers’ arms, which looked “almost unattached.” Soon the forms in his own paintings began to remind him of disembodied limbs. He says he will experience “some tremors” when he sees his work blown up by 2,750 percent.

Says composer Mikel Rouse, “When you make a record, you want to find the perfect sequence to set off the music.” But when you make a score for iPod, you’re left focusing on the transitions between the tunes.

“With the shuffle, there’s an audible break from one tune to the next,” the composer explains. To smooth such seams, Rouse begins each section almost inaudibly. The music grows in volume and complexity, then subsides back into silence. “As it fades out, the sounds from the environment will become more pervasive.” (His cell phone gobbles on cue.)

“Songs just floating up out of the ocean, hovering there for a verse and a chorus, then disappearing – more and more, this is the soundscape of the world I live in,” Rouse says. “There’s so much beauty in embracing it.”

WHEN & WHERE Merce Cunningham Dance Company will perform “eyeSpace,” as well as a revival of “Crises” and a mini-Event, Tuesday through Sunday at the Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Ave. at 19th Street, Manhattan. Tickets $33 and $44. Call 212-242-0800, or visit

October 14, 2006
Rouse Mastery, Nancarrow Mystery

Mikel Rouse’s music for Merce Cunningham’s dance eyeSpace, which I witnessed at the Joyce Theater in New York last night and is playing again tonight, was brilliantly post-Cagean. Cunningham and John Cage, as you know, made a decades-long joint career by making music and dance whose interaction was unplanned. Cage would make 20 minutes of music, Cunningham the same length dance, then just combine them, so that random coincidences could happen beyond the control of the creators. Mikel took the idea a step further – the dancers don’t even hear the music, because it’s on iPods. So the entire audience sat there listening with headphones to Mikel’s music, and because each iPod was on shuffle mode, each audience member was hearing different tracks and experiencing a different accompaniment to Merce’s dance.

And to make it even more interesting, Mikel and Merce’s sound designer Stephen Moore were playing tracks of environmental sounds into the hall – car horns, people talking, subway noise – at greatly varying volumes. Sometimes the environmental sounds would intrude into the iPod music, either because the noises got very loud or Mikel’s music very soft. So it was a partly communal experience, and more unpredictable than just listening to a series of Mikel’s gently ambient songs, because the noises and songs interacted randomly, and you weren’t always sure which sounds came from where. The whole concept realized Cage’s kind of unpredictable liveliness on a new level, one that allowed for Mikel’s pop-flavored beat. And one of the advantages to Mikel’s and my kind of multitempo music, as we semi-joked afterward, was that no matter what kind of rhythm the dancers were making, there was probably some background tempo being articulated by the music that went right along with it. Mikel’s wife Lisa Boudreau (pictured) is one of Cunningham’s dancers, and this was the first time she’d ever had the chance to dance to Mikel’s music.

The dancers were forming and reforming in pairs, and wore elastic bands that they would tie each other together with intermittently. Forgive me for not describing more: dance is the most difficult art form for me to grasp, and I’ve never had any vocabulary for it. It looked like the picture.

As if that weren’t enough excitement for one evening, the concert also featured the original choreography (as recalled by Carolyn Brown and others) of Merce’s dance, titled Crises, for Conlon Nancarrow’s first seven Player Piano Studies, done back in 1960. The Cunningham Dance Group kept that in their repertoire until 1964, and there’s apparently a primitive video that they were able to use in the reconstruction. (This Cunningham Dance tour eventually led to the short-lived 1969 Columbia recording of the early Studies.) The dance was kind of robotic and hiply modernist, in skin-tight yellow, red, and salmon tights. In Cage-Cunningham fashion, switches from one Study to the next were not synchronized with sections in the dance. I was paying especially close attention because next May in Boston, Mark Morris is choreographing some of my Disklavier Studies, and I was curious for something to comare with.

The strange thing, that several of us had a big powwow about afterwards, was that one of Conlon’s Player Piano Studies was one no one recognized. Trimpin had supplied MIDI files of the early studies so they could dance to a Disklavier (Cunningham always uses “live” music), but they found that the current MIDI files (which I also have) didn’t match the early tape. So they had to use the old tape, in the middle of which was there was a three- or four-minute Nancarrow study that I’d never heard before. Its melodic quirks sounded exactly like Nancarrow’s style, except that the tune was a little more repetitive and sing-songy, more influenced, perhaps, by the jazz that Conlon had played on trumpet in his jazz gigs of the 1930s. Various theories were advanced, including the possibility that David Tudor had improvised something, but given Conlon’s tendency to become dissatisfied with works and disown them, I strongly suspect that this was an early study that he threw away, probably because the jazz influence was too undigested. I’m going to get a recording and see if I can analyze the tempo relationships. Had they asked me a couple of months ago, I’m sure I could have supplied them with a MIDI version.

Posted by kgann at October 14, 2006 12:42 PM

Volume Number 1 Issue Number 3 | October 13 – 19, 2006 Dance eyeSpace Choreographed by Merce Cunningham
Showing through October 15th Joyce Theater 175 Eighth Avenue (212-242-0800;

Annna Finke
Turn on and tune out: In Merce Cunningham’s new dance, “eyeSpace,” audience members lose themselves in the crowd as they watch the dancers while listening to iPods.

Dancing to one’s own tunes
By Sara G. Levin

Imagine your daily commute, the type that only happens in a cosmopolitan city. If you’re listening to an iPod, the sound of people rushing past you, shoving for a seat on the subway or chatting with each other, is muffled. Looking out from your music-filled bubble, you might be more inclined to notice how the shift of a woman’s body is graceful, or how the bend of a man’s head is mournful, while those around you remain oblivious to such details. This juxtaposition of feeling isolated while existing within a crowd is exactly why Merce Cunningham’s new piece, “eyeSpace,” is essential “New York.”

It is also essential “Merce.”

The performance, which premiered Tuesday, Oct. 10 at the Joyce Theater, is another venture for Cunningham to experiment with corporeal relationships and new technology. All audience members brought or borrowed an iPod Shuffle. And with the addition of that simple device, the independence of music and dance was elevated – a company tradition that began with Cunningham and composer John Cage’s collaborations.

Connecting sound and movement by time and space only, as opposed to story, drama or emotion, gives Cunningham’s work an unusual sense of unexpectedness, randomness and sometimes, wandering. In “eyeSpace,” the independence of the music is heightened because each person is listening to a different track while watching the work, viewing the piece in aural isolation.

Humming in my ear were the sad, longing sounds of Mikel Rouse, who composed the five varied songs programmed into the iPod. Far away there were muffled noises of a subway door opening and closing, the announcement “This is a number two express train,” which made up the distinct soundtrack playing over the theater’s speakers.

The result was like peering from the head of someone jerking along on that two train with their headphones on. Before me, the dancers arched back, reaching backwards as if diving for something. Two women propelled their arms upwards in slow motion, as if fighting a vicious current. Then entered the lyric, “waaaterrr.” I felt as though whatever I saw – whether looking at a dancer or imagining a haggard commuter – was decidedly mine: No one else was seeing it with the same specific verse at the exact same moment.

Visually, the scenery in “eyeSpace” has nothing to do with New York City subways. The backdrop is a disorienting sea of painted blades of color jutting out from black circles that dot a pink background, created by Henry Samelson. Bubbles rise up from the bottom. The blades are painted in metallic silver, so they appear three-dimensional, matching the glint of the unitards worn by the dancers.

And yet, the dance itself calls to mind our daily commute, as men and women drift apart then come together, moving intently, sticking jumps and hops precisely. The dancers’ crisp changes of direction, uncomfortable landings, twists and spins, mimic the way one’s mind drifts, turns, contemplates, and sees people in different lights while riding the subway listening to music. With the iPod, a feeling of isolation and day-dreaming takes over, while sounds of train cars and MTA announcements become background noise, and the surrounding people soften from reality’s focus.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company

Published: October 17 2006 03:00 | Last updated: October 17 2006 03:00

Merce Cunningham Dance Company

The Joyce, New York

Even at 87, Merce Cunningham is not above a gimmick. Or so it would seem with his latest dance eyeSpace. Inviting audiences to bring their iPods to the performance sounded like a stunt. To experience the new piece fully, one required an iPod (loaned to those not owning one, as they entered the auditorium). But once Mikel Rouse’s disjointedly eclectic score, International Cloud Atlas, started, with accompanying computer-generated sounds played live, all gimmickry faded. A dozen dancers performing wonders of poise, balance and off-balance in a series of quartets, trios and a knockout concluding duet proved again the choreographer’s genius.

For Cunningham, the look is almost formal. Set against Henry Samelson’s abstract design resembling huge nails or rounded-end pins scattered over a rosy background, the dancers stood out in unitards of aqua, turquoise or sapphire. The first quartet lunged into ecstatic poses, arms spread, heads thrown back – something of a departure for the usually impassively serious company.

My iPod had something like a Hawaiian chant on it, but it could have easily been some quite different sound set on shuffle. The high point of the piece was a geometrically designed duet with Liverpool-born Julie Cunningham, slender, stick- straight with short red hair, and Daniel Squire, her sturdy partner. Here too there was emotional tension created as, having danced icily detached, she suddenly fell to the floor as if surrendering.

It was interesting to contrast eyeSpace with Crises, created in l960, set to an almost tunefully jazzy score for player piano by Conlon Nancarrow. The choreography has more of a narrative feel to it than Cunningham’s recent chance-determined pieces. Rashaum Mitchell, a standout in even this talented company was the pursuing male with Holley Farmer his primary partner out of three others.

Athough the choreography for Scenario Minievent with its springy jumps, fluttering batterie and quick spins is irresistible, I have never been able to reconcile myself to Rei Kawakubo’s costumes – lumpy attachments to chest, midriff and derrière that detract from the line and movement. Cédric Andrieux was outstanding in a lengthy solo. Coincidentally, his costume was lump-free. Tel +1 212 242 0800 Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006

Old dog Merce Cunnigham shows off new tricks
by Deborah Jowitt

Do the shuffle: Performing eyeSpace
photo: Julieta Cervantes

Merce Cunningham and John Cage were using chance procedures to shuffle music and dance sequences before Steve Jobs was born. With Cunningham’s new eyeSpace, the audience gets to play. We hear half of Mikel Rouse’s score, variously shuffled, on iPods. Text sung and spoken by the dancers (sample: “I almost lost my foot, but I didn’t lose my foot”) emerges from a murmur of instruments and other sounds. Rouse and Stephan Moore also generate noise on the theater’s speakers—mostly street and subway clamor. Sitting there in our headphones we might be on the subway, except that no musical favorites cocoon us from commotion.

This aural experience is somewhat like life; the visual one isn’t. Henry Samelson’s tomato-red backdrop is strewn with mostly blue shapes that resemble several-pronged nails. Josh Johnson echoes the design by casting white slashes of light on the floor. The dancers in their electric blue unitards form other visual slashes. Samelson’s title for his decor, Blues Arrive Not Anticipating What Transpires Even Between Themselves, could be applied to the choreography, although we know that these 12 marvelous dancers have to anticipate what looks unplanned. As eyeSpace begins, Cédric Andrieux, Jonah Bokaer, Brandon Collwes, and Andrea Weber move as a herd, slowly lunging in place. Others arrive and depart unexpectedly and with tranquil awareness, like animals approaching a water hole.

As in many recent Cunningham dances, the movement rings complex and virtuosic changes on three basic motifs: stalking about on tiptoe, balancing for a long time on one leg, and jumping or leaping. The dancers may tilt or bend their torsos, but their natural stance is erect and their gaze level. This style figures to some degree in Scenario MinEvent, drawn from the 1997 Scenario. Rei Kawakubo’s extraordinary costumes, for which fabric with white-and-blue stripes and/or green-and-white checks has been stitched over huge pads, gives the dancers humpbacks, goiters, swollen buttocks, and potbellies. It’s as if a Project Runway contestant had experienced a major meltdown. Both costumes and choreography seem wittier than they did in 1997. It’s a good joke to watch sprightly Koji Mizuta hop sideways across the stage, paying no attention to his pendulous stomach as he shivers one leg in the air. Collwes and Julie Cunningham, Bokaer and Marcie Munnerlyn, Mizuta and Holley Farmer parade foppishly as if meeting at a court ball.

Crises (1960) is braver than anything passing for avant-garde today. What a dance! With amazing success, J. Cunningham, Jennifer Goggans, Farmer, Rashaun Mitchell, and Weber—coached by Carolyn Brown and Carol Teitelbaum—recreate roles tailored for Valda Setterfield, Brown, Viola Farber, Cunningham himself, and Marilyn Wood. A great space seems to surround the dancers (wearing unitards that recreate Robert Rauschenberg’s originals). Their serene wildness contrasts stunningly with Conlon Nancarrow’s feverish Studies for Player Piano. The long stillnesses are as compelling as the extraordinary movements are extraordinary. Farmer stands on one leg, rippling her arms—a study in boneless control; Mitchell, lashing his limbs, advances on her as if she’s conjured him to her side. He projects an animal’s intentness and force—whether grasping J. Cunningham’s ankle while she steps out; bending Goggans’s back over his arm and walking her along, as she stretches each leg high; or crawling in on his hands and feet, belly up. Imagine a stallion sniffing out a bunch of mares. Elastic bands complicate interactions. Farmer hooks an elbow through one around Mitchell’s waist and makes him spin around her. Weber and J. Cunningham are briefly bound together by a single ankle elastic. Every move seems individual and eccentric, including the moment when Weber walks calmly across the stage, stopping occasionally to turn her head and stare at us. Spend an evening with a genius and you come away feeling smarter and happier.


 Merce Cunningham’s Marvels of Movement


October 26, 2006; Page D6

In the mid-1980s, some 40 years into his career as a dancer and choreographer, the now 87-year-old Merce Cunningham reflected on his explorations with dance. From his beginnings in the company of Martha Graham, and then in partnership with the iconoclastic musician John Cage, Mr. Cunningham noted, he became interested in mating the different focal points of modern dance and of ballet as he trained dancers and made dances. “In the modern dance,” he observed, “they used the torso, the back a great deal, the legs not so much.” Conversely, in “the ballet, they used the legs a great deal.”

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s recent triple bill at the Joyce Theater proved engagingly that Mr. Cunningham’s interests in the “language” of dance remain rewardingly rich. For all the externals, if I may use this term without belittling the visual and aural aspects of Mr. Cunningham’s dances, his works continue to be marvels of personal movement. A scene from “eyeSpace,” which had an iPod dimension and was part of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s recent triple bill at the Joyce Theater in New York.

A scene from “eyeSpace,” which had an iPod dimension and was part of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s recent triple bill at the Joyce Theater in New York.

Often nowadays, the nondance elements of Mr. Cunningham’s works get accentuated and promoted, presumably in efforts to entice new audiences. The novelty angle has become a fact of artistic life in contemporary culture, but the unusual aspects of Mr. Cunningham’s presentations are still consistently good ones.

This run had an “iPod” dimension. For the score of “eyeSpace,” the season’s world premiere, composer Mikel Rouse arranged a mix of music and sound tracks intended for individual listening on iPods provided in the theater for those who didn’t come armed with their own with the score downloaded according to directions given to ticket buyers. Alas, my unfamiliarity with the device led to an only partially effective experience. After noting to iPod-savvy colleagues that my head-set listening didn’t yield a particularly vivid result, I learned that I probably missed most of the “shuffle” feed from my earphones because the secondary sound mix simultaneously provided by the composer in the theater unduly overrode my iPod portion. (I should have pumped up the volume for full effectiveness.) Nevermind, I still found the communal effect intriguing. Being part of the audience reminded me of the shared privacy of 1950s 3-D movies, when everyone wore those sometimes eerie-looking, cheap dark glasses.

However much more potent my audio experience might have been, the dancing of “eyeSpace” still stood apart. Henry Samelson’s inspired design put the cast of six men and six women in body-tights dyed a remarkable array of electric blues, and set them off against a painted backdrop shot through with rays and bubbles of saturated color, including vibrant cerise, sharp greens and yellows, indelible indigos and inky blacks. Essentially, Mr. Cunningham’s elegant, yet unpredictable choreography amounted to fine-tuned animation. A serenely choreographed quartet eventually gave rise to a stageful of activity, all of which wrapped up, almost too soon, with a playful yet precise duet. This showed the impressive Julie Cunningham (no relation) and Daniel Squire almost lunging and parrying their intermeshing leg-, arm- and body-work as if engaged in a kind of championship fencing match.

A somewhat rare revival of an older work by Mr. Cunningham, who still prefers to keep creating new dances, “Crises” (1960) provided riveting challenges for its cast. In the almost demonic role danced originally by Mr. Cunningham, Rashaun Mitchell was breathtakingly articulate. In a haunting role that was something of a walk-on, Ms. Cunningham kept rising into a stance that confronted the audience before melting to uneasy rest through remarkably controlled footwork. In Merce Cunningham’s distinct way with dancing, the feet and legs do more than their equal share of work for a form that is essentially deemed modern-dance-based. This striking fact is increasingly evident when one sees so much “contemporary dance,” a term favored in Europe, where labeling dance “modern” or “postmodern” tends to be less in use.

Passions and fashions, by Merce Cunningham

Thursday, October 12, 2006


Star-Ledger Staff DANCE

NEW YORK — The naked human body, that humble object, can appear clothed in many alluring ways. Covered with a variety of outfits in daily life, in the theater the body enters a wonderland of disguises — none of which ultimately matters, however.

Choreographer Merce Cunningham reminded us of this in 1997 with “Scenario,” his collaboration with fashion designer Rei Kawakubo. Kawakubo, who had scandalized the fashion world by giving her models humps and goiters, adapted her bizarrely padded garments (the “Quasimodo collection”) for the stage. On Tuesday, “Scenario” returned, condensed and with its parts reshuffled into a “mini-event” that opens the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s marvelously witty program at the Joyce Theater.

This “Scenario Minevent” and the 87-year-old choreographer’s equally provocative season premiere, “eyeSpace,” bookend the revival of a more straightforward dance called “Crises,” made in 1960. Both “Scenario” and “eyeSpace” hang a veil of artifice between the spectator and the dance. This conceptual scrim is visual, attached to the costumes in “Scenario,” but it is aural in “eyeSpace,” where audience members plugged into iPods hear a score by Mikel Rouse, in which the moody strumming of guitars and caressing vocals alternate with snatches of gossip, chatter and public-service announcements recorded on the subway — all attempting to distract us from the on-stage action.

Since one of Cunningham’s major themes is the indifference of the natural world to human desires, and since Cunningham’s sleek choreography continues unperturbed in spite of the dancers’ protuberances in “Scenario,” and without taking any notice of the urban cacophony of “eyeSpace,” both these pieces suggest a satire of mankind’s vanity and self-importance. Whether our pretensions take the form of fashion or the latest electronic gizmo, the Earth continues to revolve in supreme, millennial disdain.

In a charmingly silly episode of “Scenario,” couples enter with long, sliding steps, their hands arranged decoratively at the shoulder, or with an arm across the small of the back, for all the world like ballroom partners making a grand entrance. These Pulchinellos are in summery attire — with green tablecloth checks or blue-and-white umbrella stripes stretched across their bulging tumors — as if attending a post-nuclear clambake.

“Crises” presents a series of duets between Raushaun Mitchell and three women, which, combined with composer Conlon Nancarrow’s fractured jazz rhythms, give the piece a sexy atmosphere. Here different types of movement clothe the dancers as if they were costumes, suggesting character. Wiggly Holley Farmer appears difficult to hold, while, in contrast, Jennifer Goggans falls passively into her partner’s arms. Mitchell crouches backward, his stance slyly oblique.

Because the multi-layered score for “eyeSpace” so faithfully reflects the experience of riding the subway, the piece feels like a sentimental tribute to city life. A glowing, candy-colored backdrop by Henry Samuelson adds to the whimsy.

A foursome, limbs beautifully stretched, begins the dancing, which passes through a series of gorgeous and inventive figures before the choreography resolves in a series of couplings. These, too, have a sentimental feel, especially Emma Desjardins’ and Jonah Bokaer’s tight embrace. The dance’s crowning image, as the light falls, is a wondrously loving duet for Daniel Squire and Julie Cunningham, an intimate conversation of shifting angles in which they suddenly hold hands or are joined by a casual, soft touch.


October 12, 2006 — MERCE Cunningham is never behind the times. If anything, this 87-year-old dance wizard strives to be in front of them – which explains what those iPods were doing at the Tuesday’s world premiere of “eyeSpace.”

Benighted creatures such as myself who didn’t own an iPod were loaned one for the evening as Mikel Rouse’s original score was made available for downloading, which is something of which Mozart never thought. The dancers, of course, couldn’t hear the score (there was some kind of sound going on in the theater if you removed your headphones), but since Cunningham dancers rehearse only to beats, not music, it couldn’t make much difference.

The ballet itself was graced with Cunningham’s elegant, classically tuned if not classically styled, choreography, not especially inventive but always easy on the eye. The evening opened with the New York premiere of “Scenario Minevent,” excerpted from Cunningham’s 1997 “Scenario,” overwhelmed by deliberately grotesque costumes by Rei Kawakubo, and a revival of “Crises,” set to music by Conlon Nancarrow. “Crises” – staged here by Carolyn Brown and Carol Teitelbaum, after a 40-year absence – is Cunningham at his finest. A brilliantly imaginative work for four women and a man, it has a flair, style and originality that the rest of the program, despite gimmickry, merely echoed from a distance.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM The Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Ave., between 18th and 19th streets. (212) 242-0800. Season runs through Sunday.

Bring your iPods for this Merce Cunningham premiere

By Susan Reiter

Leave it to Merce Cunningham—always alert to the latest technological advancements and their potential applications—to create a new work for dance that incorporates iPods. For the world premiere of the master choreographer’s new eyeSpace, Mikel Rouse’s score can be downloaded and listened to in random order by audience members. It adds an element of chance to their experience, much as Cunningham himself has famously experimented with chance procedures in his choreography. Rouse, whose latest opera, The End of Cinematics, was just seen at BAM last week, has incorporated digitally sampled sounds of John Cage’s prepared piano into the score, titled International Cloud Atlas, which also includes an environmental soundscape that will be projected throughout the theater.

The days when Cunningham’s company had an annual New York City season are gone, and these days any local sighting of this exceptional troupe is a rare and significant event. After recent seasons at BAM and Lincoln Center, the Joyce offers a more intimate setting to observe these dancers’ preternaturally intelligent and spontaneous performances. A revival of Crises, a 1960s dance that has not been performed in New York for over four decades, shares the program with Cunningham’s newest work. Cunningham himself was the longtime male component of an original cast that included such legendary dancers as Carolyn Brown and Viola Farber. Set to several of Conlon Nancarrow’s eccentric Rhythm Studies for player piano, the work was described by Cunningham as “an adventure in togetherness.” The connection among the dancers was left to random selection due to the elastic bands incorporated around the dancers’ waists, arms, wrists and legs—all of which allowed for additional ways for bodies to link and hold on to one another. Who said you needed the latest techno gadget to be on the cutting edge?

The Shock of the Not So New
Published: September 10, 2006

To start, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company will perform at the Joyce Theater in mid-October, at Mr. Cunningham’s most slyly playful, it would seem, in a premiere called “eyeSpace,” to which audience members will be encouraged to take their iPods to hear the dance’s downloadable score by Mikel Rouse. (Technophobes will be provided with loaners.) Also on the program will be one of Mr. Cunningham’s signature site-specific “events” and a revival of his 1960 “Crises,” which John Cage once described as a harsh and erotic piece about a man and a woman bound together in part by elastic bands. It is hard to imagine today’s performers matching the wildness and ferocity that Mr. Cunningham, Viola Farber and Carolyn Brown once brought to it. Will they make it new?

The Week Ahead: Oct. 8 – Oct. 14
DANCE Jack Anderson

MERCE CUNNINGHAM can be a surprising choreographer, not only in his choice of dance steps but also in his use of music and scenery. So it’s no surprise that “eyeSpace,” his latest premiere for his Merce Cunningham Dance Company, promises some surprises. For one thing, dancegoers who own iPods are asked to bring them along to the theater. Thanks to iTunes they’ll be able to download “International Cloud Atlas,” MIKEL ROUSE’s score for the work, on those iPods. Don’t have one? These devices will also be available on loan at the theater. (Downloading instructions are at The premiere, designed by Henry Samelson, an artist from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, shares the program with Mr. Cunningham’s “Scenario MinEvent” and a revival of “Crises,” a long unperformed yet major work from 1960 that is musically unusual in its own way. It is accompanied by an intricate and rhythmically perky score for player pianos by Conlon Nancarrow.

Dance Listings

Dance Listings
MERCE CUNNINGHAM Merce Cunningham, meet iPod Shuffle. It seems inevitable that this modern choreographer, renowned for his reliance on chance, would find irresistible a gadget that allows people to peruse their music libraries at random. After all, people who think that Shostakovich and 50 Cent don’t go together are probably the same sticklers who believe that choreographers should know the scores to their dances before opening night. But odd couples and random combinations are old hat to Mr. Cunningham and his dancers. For its coming engagement at the Joyce, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company will present the premiere of “eyeSpace,” with décor and costumes by Henry Samelson; Mikel Rouse’s original score will be available free for download on audience members’ iPods. (Luddites will get loaners.) The composition, “International Cloud Atlas,” contains John Cage samplings. The music can be shuffled, repeated, paused or done away with altogether. Mr. Rouse has created a soundscape that will be projected throughout the theater, as an alternative. The five-day engagement will also feature the premiere of “Scenario MinEvent,” above, with music by Takehisa Kosugi and costumes by Rei Kawakubo, and a revival of “Crises,” a dance with music by Conlon Nancarrow and costumes by Robert Rauschenberg. Created in 1960, “Crises” hasn’t been performed in New York in more than 40 years.