Tag Archives: david covey

Looking through the window

1 Mar

A couple of days ago I attended Separate Panes, an MFA project by graduate student James Graham of the Ohio State University.  Of course I had no idea what to expect (and it’s always healthier to approach a modern dance with no preconceived ideas), but what I did know was that it would be an installation in Sullivant Library (which unbeknownst to me is going to be gutted and renovated!).  I have to admit, because of my mischievous spirit, installation type live art is…interesting for me.  I so badly want to take it personally as a challenge to see if I can distract the performers and make them laugh.  I’m the kind of person who upon seeing stilt walkers at a park, feel an insatiable urge to roll grapes along the floor, hopeful that I can get them to slip on one.  Sometimes I really am a horrible person although Coyote, the Trickster God of Native American myth would be so proud.  Nevertheless, to his disappointment, logic and sensibility inevitably suppress these impish urges.  One of the dancers told me she would have liked it if more audience members got in her face and told me I should have, but it was more than likely inappropriate, given the atmosphere.

That atmosphere I refer to had an aura that I described as being reminiscent of The Shining.  Empty hallways but instead of gushing torrents of blood there were paper airplanes scattered on the floor, hanging from the ceilings, piled onto a leprechaun-sized chair that was apparently in an elevator that would open at random intervals, with nothing else inside.  That last bit I didn’t see because it was up to audience members to choose what they wanted to look at and where to traverse, so inevitably there was always something to be missed.  It was pretty overwhelming at first but after walking through several rooms it was no different then the act of living itself.  Is there really such a thing as aware or naïve?  Or is the truth simply that we are simultaneously both and neither?  My conclusion was that the pursuit of omnipotence is completely inane.

The first half was listless and dreamy with a handful of dancers (five, if I recall correctly) doing minimal movements, like tearing pages out of a book or scribbling on the walls with charcoal.  There was a soundscape with no specific phrases of music.  It was unnerving as it was meant to be, although I found solace in one room with hanging windows and these peculiar tree branches suspended from the ceiling with piles of smooth, rounded stones on the floor beneath them.  It was stark save for these branch/stone effigies, that reminded me of that ludicrous phrase where one chants “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”  I don’t know what idiot came up with that, but it’s so far from the truth (well, my truth) because in my experiences words hurt more than anything and while the majority of people learn the harmful effects of physical violence it seems less people understand the potential of their words.  Accordingly, those people choose not to take responsibility for the damage they cause.  The torn pages in that room were distressing, recalling all kinds of psychological pain people have inflicted on me.  I don’t like going to that place, but at the same time I’ve always believed that completely forgetting one’s history is the most foolish thing a person can do.  Physical scars are no big deal; in fact the only ones I have are ones I caused myself.  Obviously unintentional…a burn scar from baking blueberry muffins, a scar from when I stabbed my leg from falling onto a picture frame while I was jumping on the couch…you know.

At any rate, there were a lot of wonderful, unexpected moments and not just within the dance itself.  At one point, I was walking in one room that was divided down the middle with a line of book pages and in the very center of the room was a bathtub with a few votive candles.  While I approached from one side of the room, staring downward, so did another figure except from the opposite side, on the other side of the book page line.  We were both looking down into the bathtub and when we looked up, lo and behold it was my dear friend Svetlana.  It was really neat to experience such a serendipitous moment with her in an unfamiliar setting and in that moment I really felt a transcendence from audience to participant.  Later on this would be further emphasized when I was kicked in the elbow by one of the dancers…but I probably deserved it because of my Coyote-inspired thoughts earlier in the evening.  Karma’s no fool…but I am.

It was around that time that the dancers were divided into a duet and a trio, which again was the audience’s choice to view as they pleased.  I had no idea the trio was even taking place until the duet was finished so I only caught a few glimpses, before they all converged in the “window pane/branch-stone effigy room.”  There, the dancing became more visceral with familiar shapes and physicality.  The once scattered soloists that developed into a duet and trio had now found its apex in this room, dancing with strong relationships to each other by grasping hands and weaving between each other or lifting one another onto each other’s shoulders.  Chaos found a rhythm and at one point they formed a circle and my brain, which so naturally organizes things with meticulous detail had its “Hallelujah!” moment.  I also enjoyed the shadow play (thanks to great lighting design by David Covey), because not only did the shadows provide extra movement, what interested me the most was the contrast between stronger shadows and more diffuse ones and how that changes the relationships between the shadows and yet the relationships between the people remained the same.  One dancer, who I shall call the “destructive force” was intensified at some points by the monstrosity and strength of his shadow, while others were meeker.

I wish  I could recommend attendance of this event, but unfortunately I had gone to the last showing so it’s over.  However, one of the dancers told me that she and James will be performing a duet at the Judson Memorial Church (in New York) on March 22nd.  Other works will be presented and there is also a post performance discussion with Deborah Jowitt.  It’s free, so why not go?  I always love to see modern dances because they teach me just as much about myself as do the styles of dance that appeal to me with more ease.  As much as I love to indulge my sense of humor, it’s healthy to learn or remind myself of other emotions I can feel.

Yay modern.

Merce Cunningham: the Legacy Tour

13 Feb

Tonight was the inaugural performance of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s Legacy Tour, which will travel the world (Rome is next, according to the salesman from whom I bought a couple of postcards) performing works from Merce Cunningham’s repertory of modern dances.  I was so honored to be in the audience tonight; to see MCDC perform live for the very first time, to be a tiny part of this historic tour and most of all, honored to have seen Cunningham choreography.  It was a very special occasion (even though I didn’t have time to eat dinner and was starving throughout the show…which I didn’t really notice until after it was over), highlighted by a preperformance talk with Ohio State University’s very own, Karen Eliot (a former dancer with the company) and David Covey (former lighting director) as well as a question and answer session with a couple of the dancers, David Vaughan, the company’s archivist and…a guy with a mustache (regrettably, I didn’t catch his name or role with the company).  There were even showings of Tacita Dean’s Craneway Event earlier in the day (which unfortunately I missed…I had no idea they were even happening) so it was quite the exhaustive Cunningham crash course.  And I was loving every moment (and not missing watching the 2010 Olympic opening ceremonies!).

During the preperformance talk, Karen gave a speech about her experiences as a dancer for the company and it was evident that there was a lot of love and passion for what she learned during that time.  She told us that there was no right way to be an audience member for a Cunningham dance; she would find moments where she would laugh at the way a certain gesture was done but on the other end of the spectrum every Cunningham dance she sees brings her to tears.  She may not have been dancing on stage that night, but she was radiant; it’s so rare to see someone who is so deeply integrated into something they love.  Plenty of people can tell you “dance is the very fiber of my being,” but when it comes to Karen you really believe it to an extent that never occurred to you before and that alone is a precious gift.

David Covey followed with a few anecdotes of his time with Cunningham, from a whirlwind acceptance of the job to the one and only time Cunningham ever imparted his opinion on the lighting design of a piece.  David stressed that Cunningham always placed complete trust in his collaborators and never asked for anything, which is why his one request for David was so unusual.  He asked David to come to the studio at a particular hour, when the sun reflected off the Hudson River and right into the studio, illuminating primary colors on the walls.  Cunningham needed him to see that and while Cunningham normally sat onstage while directing his company in rehearsals, for this particular piece he actually went into the audience to watch, turned to David and gave him three claps of approval.  I wish I could retell the story as he originally did…it was really beautiful.

So then it was time for the show.  Now I have to preface by saying that I was a little apprehensive as to how I would react to Cunningham works.  I’ve always known that for me, dance is symbiotic with music.  In fact, as a wannabe dancer I rely on music.  In class I always do what the music tells me to do (which sometimes disagrees with the teacher).  When it comes to timing or imagining a character or wearing a certain facial expression it’s as though the voice of the music speaks to me and I just know what to do.  However, although Cunningham of course used music he had a much different approach.  His dancers rehearse in silence and then music is applied for the actual performance.  The thought terrifies me…but now having seen how the elements can come together, Cunningham has silently put a fork in the road ahead of me.  Should I stay true to who I am or seek out what I understand the least?  In the end, there is no right answer but there is always the choice to make.

The two pieces for the program tonight were Crises and Split SidesCrises was originally performed in 1960 and reconstructed within the past decade to enter the repertory again.  Dancers were dressed in solid colored unitards in red, orange and yellow, in sharp contrast to the plain black stage.  I found myself lost in the music, a sort of rambling of piano works with intermittent recognizable rhythms…and it turns out I was okay with it.  I wasn’t lost in it as I would be say, a Chopin Nocturne, but the cascading piano notes sort of relieved any sense of time and the piece was really a lot like daydreaming.  Karen had seen the piece before and told us it reminded her of human relationships, with elastic bands binding dancers to each other and representing the invisible ties two people have between them.  Her ideas were supported by the way pairs of dancers would manipulate each other and what I found the most intriguing was how unbiased the choreography was.  Some relationships were erotic, others playful, but there were no signs of judgment to tell us which actions were favorable or not.  This idea was emphasized by how Cunningham used ballet vocabulary and lines; the lines and steps were there but there was no intention of telling the audience that such lines were beautiful or a high leg extension was virtuosic…merely present.  I was fascinated by how he was able to strip ballet of its prettiness without making it or even the anti-balletic movements adverse.  The choreography had a pure neutrality that simply said it existed.  I felt the whole experience was beautiful, but definitely not in the same sense as going to see a classical ballet (although one woman did a series of stepping onto relevé in a parallel first position and would hold it; it was incredible in ways I have never imagined).

Split Sides was a piece that utilized one of Cunningham’s most famous tactics, randomization.  A few preselected audience members rolled dice to determine various aspects of the dance tonight.  This is absolutely crazy (in an extraordinary way) to me, because I can’t imagine not knowing exactly what would be performed and then finding out right after intermission.  But the dancers said in the Q&A that they were used to rehearsing both A-B and B-A, so it wasn’t a problem at all (one even said it was exhilarating.  I would stress out until my hair turned white).  So there were two different dances, two different pieces of music, two different sets of costumes (one set in black and white sort of violent paint splatters, the other being sunset tones with black accents), two different backdrops (one a washed out cityscape in cool blues and purples, the other an abstract forest with a suspended full moon) and then two sets of lighting cues.  It would be difficult (if not impossible) to really review or describe this piece because chances are it will be different for anyone else who sees it…but for the way it worked tonight, I surprisingly found myself moved by the very end when one dancer left the stage moving in a peculiar way, to music that didn’t really fit the moment…I likened it to when someone dies young.  It was the same feeling of unfulfillment…not just wanting to see more for the sake of seeing more but the tragic understanding that a finite end has come, without reason.  It was truly remarkable to see the way in which the five elements crystallized before us and to me it spoke again of Cunningham’s extrinisicality towards biases and preconceived ideas.  The fact that all parts of the production were equal, with none of them having anything to do with each other until the dance itself is performed (i.e. dancers rehearsing silence, lighting directors being left to their own devises, etc.) made me feel as though I were watching choreographed life itself.  The elements were separate, but equal, incidental and yet on occasion harmonious.  Life itself is a string of unrelated events that have no meaning and yet they do when we decide to attach that meaning.  Cunningham merely provided the series of events while I attached the meaning.  It was very empowering, which is the magic of being an audience member of a Cunningham dance.

I almost feel like it was quite an accomplishment to have experienced, learned and enjoyed so much in one night…I’m still kind of processing things.  But the obvious should be clear; if the Legacy Tour comes to a city near you, I highly recommend that that you attend!  That’s it…just go.

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Split Sides. Photo credit: Tony Dougherty

To download a complete schedule of the Legacy Tour, be sure to check out the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s website.