If this 2019 did not coincide with the centenary of the birth of the famous American choreographer Merce Cunningham (born April 16, 1919 in Centralia in the State of Washington) and also with the tenth anniversary of his death (July 26, 2009, in New York) the presentation of Bolzano Danza/Tanz Bozen of Beach Birds and Biped would have been ‘merely’ a revival of two choreographies carried out by Robert Swinson, but in this case we have an ever-precious occasion. Instead, the Hommage à Merce Cunningham of the CNDC (National Center of Contemporary Dance) of Angers, directed since 2013 by the very same Swinston, one of the historical dancers and several times assistant to the bereaved great choreographer, has contributed to the Tanz Bozen’s winning of the gold medal as ‘the best dance festival of the year’, as considered by the Italian Ministry of Culture. Moreover, the Homage to Cunningham has stood out for its uniqueness among the summer festivals, unique when confronted with the preeminence that theaters, cultural circuits, and various institutions have chosen to acknowledge for more than a year now: the tenth anniversary of the death of Pina Bausch. And this with respect to the fact that she was perhaps more loved, more performed, and understood by the Italian public than the American choreographer.
Faced with showy and more than appropriate celebrations in the United States, Italy, unique, perhaps, among European countries, would have almost ignored Cunningham. Thanks, therefore, to this Festival, of which we will talk about in my next review here, for having kept alive the memory and his ‘diversity’. What, in fact, distinguishes Merce Cunningham, a great dancer from most of the masters of twentieth-century dance (but here we are writing about his most important choreographic revolution) is the fact that his work has always sought to remove purely aesthetic value judgments. Faced with the systematic and monumental research conducted by this American choreographer in over seventy years of uninterrupted activity (more than 250 choreographies), it seems almost reductive to dwell on this or that work of his wide repertoire; it all appears as a work-in-progress, where ‘finished’ shows are not recognized as such, or should not be so recognized, but as stages of a journey. A journey, however, destined not to end as the then ninety-year-old choreographer still had sufficient strength and energy; indeed, in this year of his death, he created the unpredictable and dynamic Nearly Ninety for his Merce Cunningham Dance Company, continuing to wonder about the nature of dance in his opinion, mysteriously elusive and of divine origin, and for this reason, so attractive as long as he continued to ask questions about movement in space and time, about choreography, about the assembly of dances in a theatre space or en plein air, about the use of technology, and the relationship to other arts.
Many of these questions, aroused by the close contact with an artistic and intellectual milieu that is surely not only dance (beginning with the American Dadaists and Marcel Duchamp), have already found answers to which it is possible to attribute a historical value. Here, we have the separation of dance from its closest sister, music (or its ‘crutch’, as Rudolf Laban, the theoretician of Free Dance, used to say); the introduction of Chance Operations, the staging of Happenings and Events are uncovered, developed in the 50s and 60s of the last century. An era in which all the arts had tried to redesign themselves in a country, America (especially post-war New York, so similar to the Paris of the early twentieth century), which has become a receptacle for the influences of the European avant-gardes fleeing from Nazism and from war, and capable of amplifying and protecting the new artistic avant-gardes in an unprecedented mediumistic relationship with society. However, the rigor, the coherence, above all the objectivity of the answers given by Cunningham to problems still of vital importance for the art of movement, such as the relationship with music, the choreographic consistency, the participation of the dancers in a new ‘poetics of the simultaneity’, are essential for anyone who is preparing to discover the foundations of contemporary dance.
To better understand the specifics that substantiate this poetic as it concerns the ways of conceiving time and space in artistic creation, a brief historical excursus can here be useful. From the Renaissance onwards, both grammar and rhetoric have helped us to suppress solutions of continuity within the various parts of the same discourse on Art; painters believed they could gather the objects they depicted, giving the prospective invented by Leon Battista Alberti the task of ensuring their cohesion in space, thanks to an imaginary extension of the lines actually drawn. In music, the harmonization of the melodies expressly pointed to the homogenization of the parts following those preceding them. The aesthetic criterion of the ‘unity of the diverse’, inherited from the ancient Greeks, seemed satisfied in the supremacy of transition: in which each part in every aesthetic experience proceeds from the previous one. Proof of this was the logical progression adopted in tragedies, but also in ballets, or in the symmetry of the massive in classical architecture. The greatest reward for the artist consisted in the regularity with which he led the viewer from the beginning to the end of the work.
The twentieth century opened itself up by replacing transition with juxtaposition as a method for the unification of the art work. But even this last criterion of composition - let us consider Cubism, or the unconscious or dreamlike poetry of Surrealists - implies a succession determined by the order itself (however fortuitous or born of a conflict) of visual or verbal materials put in place that still function as a guide to perception. On the contrary, simultaneity as seen in the dance and musical theater of Cunningham and his life-time partner John Cage (Los Angeles, 1912 - New York 1992) is built instead by instants that overwhelm our usual perception of time and space. The ‘simultaneist’ ideal no longer looks at the Hegelian synthesis of cause and effect (so important in modern dance) but at the ‘synchronicity’ of Carl G. Jung as is exposed in his preface to the Chinese book, I Ching, which is the basis of the random methods adopted by the two American artists to establish ways of distant meanings from the logic of causal succession. In fact: "… When the random progression is suspended, everything becomes central. And everything intensifies in a continuous present that embraces everything, and forever”. Thus writes Jung in his preface to the I Ching, often referred to as The Book of Changes.
In the underlying affirmation of Cunningham, too often evaded by critics and exegetes of his work: "My work does not have dance for a theme (it's not about dance), but it is dance (it's dance)", and the choreographer unambiguously suggests the will to explore, step by step with Cage, who preceded him in similar explorations in the musical field, the boundless non-intentional possibilities of the art of movement. He wanted to create purified dances from every meaningful accessory, even from the very concept of meaning, and above all finally freed from the necessarily restricted perspectives of the ego, offering the viewer a synchronic perception of time and space precisely according to the dictates of Jungian ‘synchronicity’ described above. A logic that is transcendent in the end: ambitiously aimed at "… imitating Nature in its creative processes," as both Cage and Cunningham have many times asserted. In becoming ‘simultaneist’, preferences and antipathies of the will are immediately attenuated by the very fact that only ‘the Will presupposes the succession’.
The writings by and on Cunningham reveal the tools he endowed himself with in the practice of his work and the paths he took to show us not ideas, feelings, preferences, ideologies are revealed, but dance alone. Reading these documents with the attention they deserve, one cannot but agree; furthermore, an aspect underlying all the experiments presented by Cunningham is related to the complex identity of the dancing body: a body that is not at all taken for granted, nor is his way of working, far from being reducible to the revival of pre-established technical or poetic schemes. Nietzsche sensed “a powerful teacher, a stranger pointing the way” in every thought and every feeling, a self that inhabits one’s body because … it is your body." (Zarathustra) This Nietzschean intuition is well-suited to stigmatizing the work of the pioneer of free dance (Wigman, Dalcroze), echoing the irrefutable observation that the body, today, must instead be placed in a state close to emptiness. Although strengthened and made versatile by a thousand techniques, and in the most diverse educational disciplines, the body manages to give birth to something new if placed in a sort of absence, of silence, from which everything can be born.
Cunningham has contributed much to this research ‘in silence’ to this experimentation on the body that no longer allows itself to inspiration be guided by – considered by Cage, above all, an anachronistic romantic heritage – but by the self-forgetfulness that can correspond to the search for 'the other in itself’ or to the ‘self of the other’. This so as the body of the other in his support, his contacts, as in his tactile and visual observation, does not reveal itself as an image, a precise anatomical figure, but rather as a sensation, an intensity in a dimension that is no longer just visual, as it is above-all temporal. Time, suggests Cunningham, pushes the body to "become-a-body", hence, to "become-an-idea" of the body.
At the base of inventions and post-modernity in dance - and in particular, of that buffer zone called ‘New Dance’, inhabited by Cunningham halfway between Modern and the Post-Modern - there is the emptiness of a body that has renounced its power to its dramatic centrality, to its individualistic and ideological ethics. There is a body that has dethroned the head in order to favor the torso (and Torso is the title of a famous choreography by Cunningham of 1976), making the semantic areas (the face) almost superfluous to give more autonomy to the limbs, creating a multiplicity of weavings in which every single body is really a ‘fragment in itself’. The orientation towards the ‘fragment in itself’ (which also Nietzsche named Fragment an sich, gratifying it however with an unlimited da capo) allowed dance to free itself from its subjection to external contents as, for example, the case of Merce Cunningham freeing himself from the tutelage of Martha Graham, the all-encompassing choreographer par excellence, for whom he danced from 1938 to 1942. And to project himself towards the musical formalism of John Cage, who was to prescribe the recourse to the informal. The temporal dimension – contrary to what Rudolf Laban had professed as the idea of bodies sculpting space by opening volumes in it – becomes pure rhythm in Cunningham, identifying himself with the Cagean definition of structure.
It is no longer a question, as in historical Expressionism or Graham's dramatic dance, of revealing the contradictions of ‘pure matter’, of highlighting its conflicts, but rather of eliminating the ‘emotions’ of the body as much as possible as they oppose their spasmodic dynamics to the readability of time: the materialism of Cunningham, of the Heraclitean matrix (Heraclitus, the philosopher of continuous becoming), conceives time-matter as flowing, dance as water, and the body of the dancer never bathes in the same river twice (Heraclitus). Time loses its power to restrain itself.
The importance of Merce Cunningham and the composer John Cage in the history of dance is all to be found in this new revelation of emptiness: the emptiness that is us, and they have reawakened, in the infinite and the indefinite of our metamorphoses. The metamorphoses, as the philosopher Gilles Deleuze would say, far from masking the void, reveals it by filling it. As if the void, in order to be itself and realize its essence, must be emptied of its own nothingness, filling its fullness of being. Cunningham is therefore the choreographer of the void/fullness, and it is such in the continuous becoming; he is a pragmatic creator of Zen orientation, a scientist/poet of fluidity (not regarding movement techniques, but Weltanschauung) and of the time that flees, not feeling satisfied in its escaping simply because in his baggage of choreographies, and in the Events in particular, there is a nomadic ‘textuality’ as in James Joyce which comes back to memory by arousing another idea of history, especially the history of bodies.
Both pieces admirably presented by the CNDC d’Angers at Bolzano Danza/Tanz Bozen this memory/history of ‘nomad’ bodies darts about. Beach Birds, for eleven dancers, belongs to the so-called Studies of Nature by Cunningham, an animal lover and keen observer of their movements in his original designs and paintings. It opened in Zurich in 1991, on the occasion of a festival dedicated to James Joyce and John Cage. The white tights of the dancers, with black shoulders and arms, seem to allude to the color of certain birds, with the hands hidden in the black sleeves, looking like long tips of wings. It begins in immobility, immediately interrupted by a dancer who gradually begins to rock back and forth; gradually the dance mounts in a silent triumph of pas de deux, of sinuous circles where one can even see a male head that rests gently on a female shoulder, as happens in documentaries about birds in love. Beach Birds, award-winning also in the film version edited by Charles Atlas, exudes sensuality, affection, even decorative taste. But its mood is as nostalgic as the sound, sparse and onomatopoeic drops of Four 3, the composition of Cage heard in the background.
The incredible success that Biped received in its debut in 1999 was due to its uniqueness and perfection of choreography, with those virtual elements that still appear to have no equals, even after all these years. It was this the second choreography proposed by Bolzano Danza/Tanz-Bozen, this the fruit of the 80 year old, ever-technological imagination of Cunningham, created to celebrate the arrival of the third millennium by joining with two computer engineers. With a technique called ‘motion capture’, Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar aspired to the movement (but not the physical forms) of three dancers of the then Merce Cunningham Dance Company, only then to transform it into digital images. In a theatrical space enclosed by invisible screens on the backdrop and on the proscenium, where the dancers enter one or two at a time, there are blue bands of moving light of different heights. These bands will become dots grouped in space, small parallelepipeds of a thousand colors, scattered like the multiple pieces of a childish collage, will become virtual giant skeleton-dancers with multi-colored muscle bands that are not content with floating in the air. In this nocturnal space with a blue and iridescent glow as are the dancers' mid-thigh tights, they penetrate to ‘play’ with the live dancers, flying over their heads, touching their extremities.
Imagine a funambulist balancing another gigantic tightrope-walker on his head, with his axis of equilibrium, and you will have sketched out in your mind one of the most unpredictable moments of this mysterious choreography. While not describing all the dance piece here, we can affirm that it contains at least five extraordinary solos, among the most lyrical and intense that Cunningham has ever created, and at that with an extraordinary effect that occurs in the middle part of the 45 minute pièce, it corresponding to the rapid dressing of the dancers who suddenly they find themselves dressed in pearl-colored jackets, soft and silky. And so with the ‘classic’ posture of the shoulders and the upright position of the bodies, all loses its sustained aristocracy, and the dance acquires an even more contemporary and ‘doubtful’ tone, even in the elegance of the forms that are combined with those virtual presences. Biped, however, would not be such a seductive work if the live music of the English composer Gavin Bryars, was not reinforced by electronic equivalents and accompanied by an unpredictable and vital rhythm. Even this development of sound which seems to want to caress and woo the dance movement through new ways, completely different than as with the many musicians who, besides Cage, have collaborated with the choreographer, enriches the ‘nomad textuality’ of Biped. A tribute to homo sapiens, Biped seems to continue to summarize in the purest formalism the great stages of the dance of the 1900s (from the Bauhaus of Oskar Schlemmer to the veiled signs of post- Expressionism). A timeless wonder of a masterpiece.