Monday, 15 November 2010

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company - Roaratorio, at the Theatre de la Ville, Paris; November 13th, 2010

If dance is the pre-eminent art of the body, the body unalloyed in its beauty, and unadorned by technology; in the choreography of Merce Cunningham, we find the body transfigured and transcended, to the point where, as in the philosophy of Donna Haraway, the line between the human and its android doppelganger becomes blurry to the point of indistinguishability. Not just Olympia, the mechanical doll from Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffman (as filmed, perhaps, by Powell and Pressburger), but a whole stage full of dancing automatons have been released from their box. But never have these clockwork figures appeared so tender, so pliable. Choreographed by Danceforms software to programme bodies imaginable only through wetware, we find the human at its most subjective in its transcendence, its communion with objects.

Elements of classical ballet, the modern dance of Cunningham's mentor Martha Graham, and -this being a "circus" on Finnegan's Wake - Irish dancing of the Riverdance variety, converge in occult combinations; finding impossible correspondences and convergences, spinning gold from base metal. From this seeming unrelatedness, elements adrift on an even plain, the eye picks out details and attractions at its own pace. Accepting the inevitable partiality of its position in space (as the ear must equally, in listening to Cage's accompanying music), one regards the whole more as one views a vast canvas, and with scant reference to the standard narrative expectations of classical ballet.

Structure emerges as if by accident, with the beauty of DNA, ant farms, or fractals. From moments of the strictest discipline spills the most casual intimacy; machinic rigour thus become inseparable from the simplest, most human of gestures. Even the stools, their cushions in the same colours as the dancers' clothes, are arranged, as if to emphasise the very objectness of the human figures, in the same holds and wild combinations as the coryphées themselves. The world of Roaratorio - and a whole world it most certainly is - is one in which tension and release, the animate and inanimate, form four points of a highly unstable Greimasian semiotic square which are constantly changing places with each other. This is why the dance does not 'mean' anything. It is not a work whose 'deeper' hidden truth can be divined or interpreted. Everything is on the surface, teeming with life. This is the sense in which, with Cage and Cunningham, artworks move from the romantic position of imitating natural phenomenon to operating themselves according to nature's own way of working. Without purpose, unpredictable, yet strangely fascinating.

(Photo credit: Merce Cunningham Dance Company/Bernand)