Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the Festival TransAmeriques last month


This was the 4th FTA which to my eyes kind of was a government cost cutting measure, as there used to be FIND, but then they stopped funding FIND, and at the time the FTA was called the Festival de Theatres des Ameriques. And somehow theatre and dance got combined and it became the Festival TransAmeriques which this year (as an aside, had more dance companies from Africa than from South America, so much for the name…) But anywhows, the organization for this year's edition did not strike me as being particularly well done. Now I don't follow the movement, trades or free agency of performance festival bureaucrats with the same attention that I do to NASCAR (or your average Montrealer does to the players on les Canadiens) but in retrospect I'd guess that someone from last year got offered a better contract someplace else, just from my entry into the opening night show.

Now I recognize that for Opening Night in Montreal for a government funded festival it is imperative to a) pack the house and b) make sure that every last seat is full. But you'd figure that despite the never-ending construction at Place des Arts someone would know how to get the 25 hundred people (or however many theatre Maisonneuve seats) in to the place without too much difficulty - well someone didn't. It was shoulder to shoulder and elbow to elbow before anyone even got so far as to be able to tear your ticket - and looking back I think it has all to do with the FTA wanting to pack the house, so there you had 25 hundred people all getting on the VIP line, actually probably less as there had been some sort of swanky cocktail party beforehand which either I hadn't been invited to, or someone forgot to tell me about my invitation. Remind me next time to buy my tickets for an opening night performance, a) I would have received my tickets more in advance b) probably gotten better seats and c) not had to wait on line with all those VIPs, yuck. There were other logistical problems throughout the FTA but they aren't relevant to the performance of Nearly 902 by The Merce Cunningham Dance Company (when saying it out loud, is it "nearly 92?" Or "Nearly 90 squared?" Or something else? These are the kind of questions I end up asking when seeing something by Merce Cunningham.

When the lights finally get dark about 15 to 20 minutes late, and the curtain rises, the stage is completely bare. But your intrepid reviewer noticed in the dark that the orchestra pit is open, which normally means that there's live music being played. But I can't see anyone in there (I'm sitting towards the back and on the side) and when the music starts it's loud, like REALLY LOUD and very electronic, so I second guess myself and then once the dancers start showing up promptly forget about it. Until it gets loud again, or glitchy or goes backwards, or quotes the only song by Yes that I can stand, or starts moving around Theatre Maisonneuve in some sort of annoying multi-channel thing. I realize while watching that despite the fact that it was composed by the keyboard player for Led Zeppelin and the music director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and played by one of my favorite musicians, John King with the music director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, it is in fact just there to keep your ears occupied.

In one of the many things I read about Merce Cunningham, actually discovered I was that his dancers practiced in silence and did not know what the music they would be performing with was like until dress rehearsal. Kind of cool as a concept, but as this was not the premiere I presume that the dancers were quite comfortable with the music. I for one can't remember a gosh darn thing about it (except for the quote from Roundabout) which makes me think it was meh.

Now you'd think that with all this moaning and complaining that I up and walked out of the performance after something like 2 minutes. I have been known to be hot-headed, intransigent and opinionated... But in fact I wasn't there to hear the music, and the silly and useless lineup at the beginning wasn't enough to even come close to putting me in a foul mood. In short it was glorious, wonderful, amazing, awesome, awe inspiring and pretty gosh darn good as well.

This is the kind of performance where I wish I had been a dancer at some previous point in my life, or paid attention when someone explained what a jeté was or a pirouette. Because I have absolutely no vocabulary when it comes to describing dance, and say things like "they swung their arms around," or "they took really really long steps almost in unison" doesn't really cut the mustard when I am trying to explain why my notes read, and I quote: "O Mi Gawd!!!" a bunch of times. Suffice it to say that all 13 dancers possess some kind of supernatural gracefulness. Or let me try to put it another way. You know how Superman has Super Powers? And Spiderman has Spidey Powers? Well the dancers in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company have powers that are even stronger than those of Superman and Spiderman combined, and it all has to do with how absofuckinglutely graceful they were, are, and will continue to be. I would give my right nut (actually a lot more than my right nut) to be half as graceful as they are. And they make it look as easy as falling out of bed. Just thinking about it makes me wish I could move just one part of my body like that.

I think that this might be the appropriate time to give you some sort of backgrounder on who Merce Cunningham was, and why his dance company is so important - but this is the 21st century, between the web site for the company, Wikipedia and Google you can find out for yourself - and if you don't know already this is the seventh paragraph, why the heck are you still reading? I don’t think that my writing is that compelling.

There was a lot of turning, but there was also tons of twisting, a bunch of bending, and some spinning. For the most part the performance was an almost endless set of variations on a theme. Duos, trios and larger groups combining together and then separating, using their bodies to make forms in space. Their leverage and balance was a wonder to watch, I was consistently left slack-jawed by how (and where) they held each other and how easy and simple they made it all look. Contrary to what you might think from reading this, they did not all move at the same speed. Not only were there innumerable variations in the forms that they created on stage, but their pacing was extremely powerful. A slow, fast, ,slow, slow fast, slow, slow, slow, kind of thing, if you know what I mean.

There were a couple of times when I noted that I found it hard to concentrate because of the slowness of the movement. But in retrospect being freed from having to focus on one dancer, or a specific gesture enables a larger view that while at the time might not be as thrilling as watching someone jump a gazillion feet in the air ultimately becomes a jillion times more satisfying when sitting back in a brightly lit room two weeks afterwards ruminating and thinking about what I had seen and experienced.

The costumes (designed by Romeo Gigli) initially surprised me, because I thunk that given such an abstract performance that what the performers wore, while important, would be considered as secondary. There were numerous costume changes, nothing too too dramatic, but like the choreography itself, variations on a theme. All based on unitards with stripes that grew larger as the performance progressed until the stripes themselves became separate entities more like dorsal fins on a dolphin. I’m certain that there was something similar going on with the lighting, but unfortunately my notes don’t shed any light on the subject.

Overall I was left with an impression that they can all jump a little higher than folk I am used to seeing in Montreal. That they all can hold their leg a little straighter than folk I am used to seeing in Montreal. Which is not to say that Montreal dancers can’t jump or hold their legs straight, just that I got the sensation that I was in the presence of some seriously kick-ass performers. But they are not as tight as I would have imagined, when they were moving in unison there were multiple thumps - this could have been a “design feature” of the choreography, but I don’t think so, otherwise I probably would not have bothered writing anything down.

It was obvious that like uni, tripe or other challenging food, choreography by Merce Cunningham is not exactly something that all Montrealers appreciate, while at the end of the show there were a bunch of curtain calls - during the show there was no applause anywhere, at anytime despite some extremely spectacular momements. I have seen much worse performances (read: simplistic) here where each solo got its own ovation. But like a combination of a riptide and a Hoover vacuum Nearly 902 no matter how you pronounce it, just sucked me in and held me riveted from beginning to end - I can only hope that I am that good when I am that old.