Caged Birds

Rigor and Sweetness: The Merce Cunningham Dance Company at Bard College's new performing-arts center.Photo: Costa Manos

Scattered across the main stage at the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts earlier this month, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company looked as if it had been invented expressly for the purpose of dancing right there. Frank Gehry’s new arts building, with its wavelike canopy of flowing steel surfaces, is a high-tech wonderland, but it nestles into the lush campus of Bard College like a cluster of mushrooms in a Walt Disney cartoon. That same combination of rigor and sweetness can be felt inside the 900-seat theater as well: You’re surrounded by wood and concrete, which give the place an air of stark, resolute modernism, but the space is intimate enough to feel thoroughly humane.

And so it is with Cunningham. Stark and resolute, not a single gesture toward the cozy comforts of the past—yet the more you watch the dancing, the more its deep-rooted humanity warms the stage and fills it with life. Cunningham makes a point of never making a point; as far as he’s concerned, that’s the audience’s job. He just arranges movement, scads of it, offering no clues as to why this gesture follows that. We’re the ones who are supposed to figure out why a man lifts a woman in a little bounce, then bounces away himself as if echoing her, or why another man wraps his arm around a woman’s waist with exquisite care as they tilt to the side like a pair of inclined planes. Oh, I see: She’s lifting her hand, so his supporting arm is all that keeps her from crashing to the floor. After a while, of course, you stop trying to reason your way through the work and just bask in it. How lovely, those big springing steps, like birds; and the way they’re all skittering around backwards now; and the cluster of women who stand on one leg and swivel slightly, like statues temporarily freed from their pedestals.

The first round of dancing took place as the Kronos Quartet played a composition by John Cage called Thirty Pieces for String Quartet. Those who love such music love such music. The rest of us meekly try to tune it out. After intermission, the cellist Loren Kiyoshi Dempster performed another Cage piece, completely opaque, and the company did more of that beautiful dancing. This commitment to rigorously atonal music, planned and performed as a separate entity from the choreography, is at the core of Cunningham’s radicalism. But at the receiving end, it sure gets old. It’s also a strangely puritanical approach to music—as if the audience can’t be trusted with too much pleasure, lest we lapse into some sort of aesthetic stupor and start demanding story ballets set to Glinka. Never mind. If Cunningham thinks it’s important to keep large swaths of the audience in a state of subliminal irritation, he’s earned the right. And we’ll all keep coming back.

I’d certainly go back any day to see more of Sarah East Johnson’s choreography for an amazing company called Lava, a name that evokes the fierce, elemental nature of the movement on display. These six women are trained in gymnastics and acrobatics, but what they’re really showing off is the art of the body at work. Johnson’s latest piece, High Tide, which just finished a run at Dance Theater Workshop, has everyone diving through hoops, entwined around trapezes, balancing atop one another using hands or feet or shoulders, rolling and wrestling and catapulting and occasionally revolving in a human wheel.

Yet it’s not about stunts; it’s about partnering—about trust and connectedness. When one woman stretches out taut on the trapeze, her feet alone supporting another woman lying flat in the air, or when a woman hangs from the trapeze and another climbs right up her body to get there too, we see the guts and sinews of ensemble itself. Sometimes they sing, sometimes they converse over a couple of telephones, sometimes they’re joined by a pair of agile 11-year-old twins. What keeps these women balanced is a life force that courses through everything they do. At the end, they stand still while we listen to the amplified sound of their heartbeats.

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Merce Cunningham
His company, at Bard College’s Fisher Center for the Performing Arts.

Sarah East Johnson
Her company, Lava, at Dance Theater Workshop.

Caged Birds