Choreographer leaves show up to chance“High priest of the dance avant-garde,” the New York Times once called Merce Cunningham. The celebrated choreographer’s company will be performing in Seoul April 15 to 17, along with Sigur Ros, avant-garde musicians from Iceland, at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts.
But what exactly they will perform is impossible to predict, since Cunningham has devised a new piece, “Split Sides,” whose presentation depends on the roll of a die.
When “Split Sides” debuted at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last year, the hugely popular experimental British rock group Radiohead was also asked to collaborate. Radiohead and Sigur Ros each performed 20-minute pieces that the dancers were hearing for the first time. A roll of the die determined which musician went first.
While Cunningham was throwing caution to the wind with music, he did the same with the production.
He ordered up two different lighting concepts, and two sets of costumes, one in color and one in black and white. Two photographers ― Catherine Yass, an acclaimed British photographer, and Robert Heishman, a high-school student from Kansas ― each created a backdrop. This aspect of the show, too, was determined by the roll of a die.
Yet another roll determined which part of Cunningham’s choreography, divided into two movements, would be presented first.
Thus, with five elements of the performance determined by the dice, the show could turn out be any one of 32 possibilities.
Cunningham is quite comfortable with chance.
He often uses dice, the I Ching or a computer program called DanceForms to develop his material. John Cage, a longtime collaborator and life partner who died in 1992, once said, “Merce does his thing and I do my thing, and for your convenience we put it together.”
As for Radiohead, a month before the performance, a fan asked on the official Radiohead Web site: “How are your plans coming along for playing that improvised dance event with Sigur Ros and Merce Cunningham?” The response, from lead singer Thom Yorke: “aaAAAAAAA HHHHHHHAHHHAHAHAHHA HHH HAHHAHAH aaaaaaaaaaaa aaaaaaaaaaa aaaaaaaa. We are in denial. Fine. Really. Fine. Not telling you what to expect. Not because we don’t know because we do. Really we do. Really we do. Thom.”
The show in Brooklyn was a critical success, and a celebration of 50 years of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Cunningham, now in his early 80s, has been breathing life into modern dance for more then 60 years.
In 1939, Martha Graham brought him aboard her prestigious company. He presented his first solo piece with John Cage in 1944, founding his own company in 1953, creating very physical works noted for their technical difficulty and nonlinear nature.
Cunningham also has a knack for choosing his collaborators, who have ranged from Jasper Johns to Andy Warhol to Roy Lichtenstein to Radiohead. To this day, critics point to breathtakingly original works by Cunningham that are revolutionizing dance.
While he has performed in Korea before, in 1984 with Cage, many speculate that the 2004 performance will be Cunningham’s last here.
The company, which has more then 160 pieces in its repertoire, will present “Ground Level Overlay” and “Split Sides” on April 15 and 16. On April 17, the troupe will be performing “Pond Way” and “Split Sides.”
“Overlay,” created in 1995, includes music by Stuart Dempster, textile sculptures by Leonardo Drew and costumes by Suzanne Gallo. “Pond Way,” created in 1998, includes a rendition of Roy Lichtenstein’s “Landscape with Boat” (1996), costume design by Suzanne Gallo and lighting by David Covey.
The performance of “Split Sides” in Korea will include recorded music by Radiohead, and a live performance by Sigur Ros.
Organizers report that talks are still under way concerning whether the die will be rolled.
by Joe Yong-hee
For more information, visit the sites www.merce.org or www.i-fine.co.kr. Tickets are 40,000 to 120,000 won.