The evening commenced on what would have been the 100th birthday of Merce Cunningham, the renowned American choreographer widely considered to be the father of postmodern dance. Coordinated by the Merce Cunningham Trust and maintaining the authentic Cunningham style, it was an ambitious undertaking with performances across three cities on the same day.
The 25 soloists, pulled from many companies – The Royal Ballet, BalletBoyz and Rambert to name a few – all rehearsed with the Cunningham technique. That is to say, they learnt the moves in isolation from the music; Cunningham believed dance is an artform which does not need to follow an individual beat. This created an excited tension in the audience, as we knew the dancers would first hear the live music at the same time as we did, enabling some spontaneous creative interpretation from them.
The music was coordinated by Christian Wolff and directed by John King. The five musicians presented a modern soundscape, with many discordant and jarring noises peppered with the occasional silence. The beauty of Cunningham’s style is that the rhythmic movement of the dancers, the slamming of feet and landing of jumps, also became a part of the musical underscore. As typical of Cunningham, the projections behind the dancers were also created independently of the music and dance. At the Barbican this was Shadows cast by readymades by Richard Hamilton, originally made for an event in 2005.
The solos themselves were intricate, at times true solos and in other moments interwoven with others. These were taken from 54 original Cunningham choreographies from 1953-2009. The fantastic staging led by Daniel Squire gave a fresh take on these pieces. As the iconic colourful Lycra bodysuits flashed against the dark stage, it was wonderful to see the solos performed by such a wide range of ages and body types.
One of the highlights of the night was seeing Billy Trevitt dancing in a body harness with tin cans, creating music through his movement and in an earlier solo demonstrating precise deep lunges. Or perhaps, as he was lifted across the stage holding firm in one of those lunges. Siobhan Davies was another show-stealer with her precise, measured movements across the stage. Other artists stood out as well. Francesca Hayward frequently caught your eye with the way she carried feeling through the movements, elongating her deep plié with meaning. Joseph Sissens demonstrated impressive extensions and refined technique. And the grunts emanating from Jonathan Goddard as he swayed his hips were hard to miss.
Seeing so many solos performed in quick succession really enabled the understanding of the reoccurring motifs within his work. The sharp sleek lines and repetitive motions. Moments of smooth drawn out movements, punctuated by staccato leaps and impressive lunges. Cunningham’s work is so uniquely physical, it truly shows off dancers as the athletes they are.
While the solos were squeezed into a long 90 minutes without an interval, had it been 10 minutes shorter it would have left the audience wanting more. There was a notable amount of restless stirring in the seats for these last minutes. Understandable, as the harsh nature of Cunningham’s technique does not make easy watching. Nonetheless, it was a wonderful unique evening representing the best of Cunningham.