It wasn't clear exactly what the garden hose contributed. The conch shells mooed like deeply depressed cows, the didgeridoo moaned, the trombones echoed like rainfall. But the hose? It didn't matter. This was a Merce Cunningham performance, where the absurd waltzed with the serene. If nothing else, listing a garden hose among the instruments in the music for "Ground Level Overlay" was simply code for Cunningham's decades of oddball and brilliant experimentation.
Hose and all, it was a coup for the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center to open its season with "the most important living choreographer," as the center's director, Susie Farr, called Cunningham in a pre-performance address. His customary local haunt is the Kennedy Center. Yet the intimacy of Clarice Smith's Kay Theatre suited the two works on the program, 1995's "Ground Level Overlay" followed by last year's hit "Split Sides."
Plucked from a 50-year repertoire rich in novelty, these two works had, surprisingly, a lot in common. Both were accompanied by soundtracks created with unusual elements that combined in a fascinating and pleasing way. One's ears weren't pounded and pummeled or even vaguely annoyed. Composer Stuart Dempster created "Underground Overlays," which accompanied the first work, as a tribute to composer and Cunningham collaborator John Cage. Cage, so fascinated by things like raindrops and taxi horns and earsplitting electronic feedback, would certainly have approved: The sounds were recorded in an empty 2-million-gallon water tank, resulting in endless reverberations and distortions, creating a surreal effect.
The hugely popular British art-rock band Radiohead and smaller alternative Icelandic band Sigur Ros each composed half of the music for "Split Sides." They, too, used unconventional means in their scores, which though recorded were enhanced by musicians in the pit (who were not members of either band) adding live elements. Radiohead departed from its spacey meanderings and agitated vocals to create a collage that started with violins and ended up in a whooshing synthesized sandstorm. Sigur Ros went the Cage route, with tinkly music boxes and xylophones and occasional bonks on an array of pink toe shoes screwed into a rack.
The dancing in the two works also had a similar energy, a sprightly propulsion. There was a mingling of delicacy and heaviness in "Ground Level Overlay," with its amber lighting and a backdrop of tangled rope matted with assorted clunky objects. There was a series of jerky, staccato duets, while one woman pursued a long, slow path across the stage, dragging her toes, unhurried. Jumps came out of nowhere: A couple of men took off like human whirligigs, popping into the air from a low crouch, spinning like propellers before landing.
"Split Sides" is governed by chance -- a die is rolled before each performance to determine which section of choreography will be danced first, which band's music will play first, and what the order of the two different costume, set and lighting designs will be. Yet, remarkably, it feels as cohesive as "Ground Level Overlay." Absent was the high-volume excitement that accompanied its premiere last year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, when scores of bright-eyed twentysomethings joined graying Cunningham devotees to hear Radiohead play live. The music is somewhat different now in its recorded state, more muted, less layered. Yet shuffling the parts -- mathematically, there are 32 possible versions of the piece -- works.
Cunningham enjoys bringing "chance operations" into his work, just as Cage welcomed garden tools and odd objects as musical instruments. Art should open up the world, Cunningham has said, and conventional means simply close it up. But what makes his mixings and matchings work is his craftsmanship. He meticulously plans his choreography so steps can be interchanged and executed in different directions. He chooses collaborators -- like the experimental rock bands of "Split Sides," and designers such as James Hall, who created the watercolor costumes -- with an astute eye. He trusts in his own ability, and he trusts that the effort to go beyond his ability, beyond his own imagination, will succeed.
The visuals of the first half of "Split Sides" were cheery -- loose costumes splashed with pink, purple and apricot, and a smeary pastel backdrop. The music, however, sounded troubled and sad, so the overall picture felt poignant. When dancers in black and white took the places of the colorful crew, the mood shifted along with the transition to Sigur Ros's ethereal, crystalline tingling. One could read fragility, longing and flight in the dancing; one duet between a man and a woman bore a striking resemblance to a moment in the ballet "Swan Lake." I didn't notice this at the work's premiere, but it struck me now that the dancers were performing the same steps in different attire. That's the real beauty in Cunningham's work. You never look at it the same way twice.
This performance repeats tonight.