Dance Review: Merce Cunningham Performs 'Sounddance,' 'Split Sides' at Wolf Trap

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 16, 2009

For a moment at Wolf Trap on Tuesday night, it looked as if tomatoes might fly, or perhaps a deviled egg from someone's picnic hamper.

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company had just finished performing "Sounddance," Cunningham's ecstatic opus from 1975 with a thundering electronic score by David Tudor that, when it didn't sound like high-decibel crickets or machine-gun fire, made you feel as if you had your ear to a cyclone. I thought the whole experience, music and dancing, was an exhilarating rush -- like bobbing in the ocean, being swept by wave after wave, getting sucked under and tumbled around from all directions. From the cheering, most of the crowd seemed to agree with me -- but not everyone.

"Thank goodness it's over!" shouted the fellow seated in front of me, hands cupped to his mouth, addressing the dancers as they took their bows. He booed over and over at high volume, adding somewhat redundantly: "You were terrible!"

People stared. A man a few seats away yelled over to him, "Hey, shut the [expletive] up! If you can't appreciate it, just leave!"

The booing continued. So did the applause. And from those hot emotions rose inescapable testimony to Cunningham's continuing impact, still sharp after decades of exploding the mold. A modern-day Diaghilev, collaborating with the leading painters and musicians of the age, Cunningham, who turned 90 in April, can still (almost) incite a riot, in the tradition of the Ballets Russes -- if you consider bellowing, cursing dancegoers nearly riotous. In my experience, nothing has come closer.

It was back in the '60s when Cunningham, his music director John Cage and resident designer Robert Rauschenberg famously elicited hurled tomatoes and eggs for some of their more earsplitting, visually jolting, structure-defying productions. Cunningham has been in the business of flouting convention for six decades, first by splitting the atomic unity of music and dance by insisting that they be independent of one another, rather than forcing one to comment on the other. He also introduced aleatory principles, tossing a coin or, in the case of "Split Sides," from 2003, which opened the Wolf Trap program, a die to determine which section of a dance would be performed first. (Company archivist David Vaughan presided over the die-rolling Tuesday.) The order of other elements in that work -- music, costumes, decor, lighting -- are also chosen by chance.

Cunningham's knack for assembling a constructive team of artists has been something of a guarantee that the elements they create in separate quarters, bringing them together only at the premiere, don't generally fight each other. In the case of "Split Sides," the interplay of James Hall's costumes (two sets of them, with a quick costume-change happening halfway through) with the alternating backdrops by Robert Heishman and Catherine Yass provided the greatest interest. The work may be famed for its musical scores, one by alternative British rock band Radiohead and the other by Icelandic minimalists Sigur Rós, but while they created a stir when the bands played live at the premiere, in recorded form (augmented at Wolf Trap by a few live musicians, none from either band), Radiohead's contribution, especially, sounds untextured and muddy.

But Cunningham works can be an acquired taste -- some of them can look a lot alike and some can drag on while visions of shopping lists and getting the cat de-hairballed crowd your thoughts. So it was a great pleasure to see that, for its Wolf Trap debut, the company performed two artistically rich, invigorating pieces -- and especially that in the case of "Sounddance," a work dating from the Ford administration can still be so provocative.

"Sounddance" takes its title from a line in James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake": "In the buginning is the woid, in the muddle is the sounddance and thereinofter you're in the unbewised again." Makes perfect sense, no? My take on it is this: In the beginning, a void; in the middle, sound and dance; and after that, we're back to the unknown again. It's life, writ small: A cycle of dark and light, nothingness and a muddle and still more unknown.

Cunningham is a fan of Joyce, who in many ways did to the novel what the choreographer did to dance. Both artists used unprecedented working methods and shunned many conventions of their art. As Joyce toyed with language, so Cunningham plays with the body and how it moves.

On Joyce's slippery, murky ground, Cunningham makes a profound statement. The curtains part on designer Mark Lancaster's low, horizontal expanse of more curtains stretching across the rear of the stage, gold velvet knotted, gathe red and draped in a luxuriously tactile backdrop.

It's an existential cabaret in God's garage, perhaps: Tudor's windstorm of sound gets whirling and roaring, and one by one, the 10 dancers in gold tops and gray tights spin out of an opening in the drapes. The floor show is all about us -- our animal passions (a woman is carried overhead by three men, two of whom pull her legs apart with detached fascination), the primitive strength we draw from the collective (dancers cling together, pitching forward yet managing to hold one another up). There are kaleidoscopic groupings and regroupings. In creating this piece, Cunningham was apparently fascinated with the tiny racing life he'd recently seen under a microscope, and in the dancing there's purposeful busyness disguised as chaos.

In the work's 18 minutes, you see human events great and small -- cell division, team-building; solitude and group sex (the '70s, natch), and Cunningham as a kind of deity, catalyst or conjurer: Robert Swinston dances the role the choreographer created for himself, as the first to emerge and the last to be sucked back into the velvet seam again, and in between he noodles around lifting, rearranging or otherwise energizing the rest of the dancers.

And all the while, that pummeling Tudor score creates a force field, a many-layered Sensurround of sub-woofers on steroids that made the "Sounddance" experience feel as if you were peering through a knothole onto the creation of the world. Leave it to Cunningham to spin marvels out of a muddle.

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