Gambolin’ Man

Merc-Y: Cunningham dancers Cedric Andrieux, left, and Derry Swan.Photo: Jack Vartoogian

‘We are here to cast the dice,” said Merce Cunningham, sounding more solemn than he probably felt. The much-heralded moment had arrived: We were going to witness an example of the famous “chance operations” that Cunningham has long used as a decision-making device. His new work, Split Sides, has ten independent elements—two twenty-minute segments of choreography, two musical scores, two lighting designs, two sets of costumes, and two backdrops—and they can be assembled any which way into consecutive, twenty-minute dances. Each night of the company’s run at BAM earlier this month, a public dice-rolling determined the order of the elements. Now Cunningham stood onstage with his dancers sprawled on the floor behind him. Four invited dice tossers hovered alongside, a woman with a video camera was poised for action, and a big screen hung overhead. Fate alone was about to play choreographer.

Of course, that’s not the reason why Split Sides has prompted more hype and buzz than any dance in the company’s 50-year history. And it’s certainly not the reason BAM was packed with an audience from that youthful demographic so beloved of arts marketers. The 18-to-34s were there for the music. In an unprecedented venture into commercial culture, Cunningham had invited Radiohead and Sigur Rós to contribute the two scores for the new work. Both bands played live on opening night; in later performances, including the one I attended, the music was heard on tape, augmented by Cunningham’s regular musicians.

The drumroll was imaginary, but the audience definitely rustled with curiosity as Isaac Mizrahi, tosser No. 1, stepped forward. We saw his hands magnified on screen, rubbing the dice. And it came up … even! That meant the Radiohead music would come first. James Hall, the company’s costume designer, rolled next to determine the order of the backdrops; Jón Thor Birgisson from Sigur Rós threw for the costumes, and set designer Robert Heishman rolled for the lighting. (Cunningham himself tossed for the order of the choreography, but he did it earlier, to give the company a little prep time.) And that was that. While we waited for the stage to be set up and the program to begin, it was impossible not to reflect on the immortal words of Miss Mazeppa, Revolution in Dance: “You gotta get a gimmick / If you wanna get applause.”

“Who cares how a pair of dice turns up? I’d much rather know how cunningham himself thinks. his mind and experience and instincts and artistry are a lot more interesting.”

Far more provocative than this mini-glimpse into Cunningham’s methods was the odd feeling of dissatisfaction it brought to the surface. Who cares how a pair of dice turns up? I’d much rather know how Cunningham himself thinks. His mind and experience and instincts and artistry are a lot more interesting than anything brought about by the impersonal machinations of fate. I realize these methods are supposed to open up realms of possibility far more expansive than a single paltry imagination could conceive, but as far as I’m concerned, that paltry human imagination is precisely where the action is. As so often happens when I watch a Cunningham performance, rich though it may be with spellbinding dancing and imagery, I found myself pondering this dogged, brilliant, truly radical soul—and the roads not taken.

Finally, the curtain went up on the main attraction, and the dancers launched into their ever-mysterious travels as the first sounds of Radiohead filtered through the Opera House. Now for the real surprise of the evening: Old fogies like me may have been bracing ourselves for shock and decibels, but Radiohead and Sigur Rós seem to have been a little cowed by their assignments. This was art rock on its best behavior. Mild, a bit tentative, sometimes disconcertingly reminiscent of New Age, the music was nowhere near as scary as the work of Cunningham’s usual collaborators. Radiohead’s score started with plingy, plaintive sounds, then added a voice that scratched and tumbled, a dash of static, some coughs, rattles, moans, and gasps. Sigur Rós also started with plingy sounds, then moved into the gentle squawks and rustles you might hear if you were listening to a baby monitor rigged up in the next room. A lot of buzzing and rumbling took over, giving way to a stretch of noises unpleasantly like fingernails on a blackboard. You say art rock, I say Mazeppa, but the crowd loved it.

Of the two dances Cunningham made for Split Sides, my favorite was the one performed on this occasion to the Sigur Rós score and in front of Catherine Yass’s backdrop, a luscious swath of purples, blues, and pinks. Cunningham’s choreography can be cool to the point of icy, but this dance sprang from his sweet side. Here were soft leaps, lifts that tilted gently or went straight upside down, and a spree of duets that showed dancers teasing one another with angular little jumps, like pairs of jackrabbits romping in a field. The Radiohead dance, by contrast, seemed more contrived. Cunningham often uses the computer to generate movement ideas, and this piece looked as though it hadn’t quite made the transition to human bodies yet. Robert Heishman’s backdrop helped, though—contemplative shades of white, gray, and taupe with textures like hand-loomed cloth.

At the Joyce, Akram Khan was showing bedazzled New Yorkers why he’s top of the heap in the British dance scene these days. With a quartet of super-sharp dancers, Khan staged an evening-length work inspired by the speed, rhythm, and footwork of kathak, the Indian dance form in which he was trained. Kathak seemed to be everywhere and nowhere, slipping through the work like an electric current, now an image, now a technique, now a memory. The dance—called Kaash (Hindi for “if”)—became repetitive and a bit shapeless as it ran; after a while, the persistent bursts of hard-edged swinging and slashing started to look like a martial-arts display. But Khan is bursting with talent, and he’s got an audience here panting for a return engagement.

Gambolin’ Man