Merce Cunningham Centenary celebration: Cross Currents, Monotones II, Everyone Keeps Me
London, Linbury Theatre
10 October 2019
Gallery of pictures by Foteini Christofilopoulou
This autumn, the Royal Ballet has got round to celebrating Merce Cunningham’s centennial (he was born on 16 April, 1919) with a short triple bill over two nights. The opening trio, Cross Currents, created by Cunningham in 1964, will be performed by the Royal Ballet cast in Paris later this month as part of an international Cunningham celebration.
The Linbury programme was a cleverly curated programme of contrasts: Cross Currents, a white trio that inspired Frederick Ashton’s Monotones II, and a commissioned work by New York-based Pam Tanowitz, Everyone Keeps Me. She combined elements of Cunningham and Ashton in a captivating creation for nine dancers that must surely take its place in the Royal Ballet’s main stage repertoire.
Cross Currents received its 1964 premiere in London in a Cunningham company programme, along with his earlier Nocturnes for six dancers to music by Eric Satie. Ashton, entranced by both works, choreographed his first trio to Satie’s piano studies in 1965. Confusingly titled Monotones II, it’s usually performed after a later, green trio, also to Satie’s music. (Both will be seen on the main stage in June next year.)
Cunningham’s role in Cross Currents was taken on the first night by Matthew Ball, much taller than his two companions, Francesca Hayward and Mayara Magri. He seemed at times protective of them, letting them skitter under his upraised arm or holding their waists in lunging arabesques. All three can’t help looking like ballet dancers as they stand in first position, feet splayed out, ready for action. Their training is to be springy, not grounded. Hayward was fleet-footed, while Magri looked secure in balancing or intersecting with the other two. Even when they set off independently, they remained an intimate unit.
Although Cunningham famously broke the connection between dance and music, these three dancers did respond to ‘landmarks’ in Conlon Nancarrow’s Studies for Player Piano. At one point, they marched in time to single notes, as though the music had been written for them. Their concentration was friendly, meeting each other’s eyes. The trio ends abruptly, as the dancers hop backwards into the wings, legs extended in arabesque – a nonchalant adieu.
In Ashton’s Monotones, the three dancers (Melissa Hamilton, Reece Clark and Noel Edmonds in the first cast) are rarely beyond arms’ length from each other. They are shape-making to Satie’s pellucid piano notes, played by Robert Clark. The woman is handled between the men like a compass, drawing huge arcs with the tip of her pointe shoe. Unlike Cunningham’s tilted, open positions, their co-ordination is crossed over (croisé), arms and wrists often decoratively curved. Then comes a clash between their graceful etiquette and unexpected flat-footed walks, as if they are magnetised to the surface. Ashton intended them to be seen as modernists as well as ballet classicists.
Tanowitz’s dancers are a community of nine, linked together at the start and finish. The title, Everyone Keeps Me, is taken from the third movement of Ted Hearne’s string quartet, Exposure, played at the side of the Linbury stage by members of the Royal Opera House Orchestra. Although the choreography has its own rhythms and phrases, it acknowledges Hearne’s fragmented energy. The scrapes and percussive taps of the players’ bows sound as discordant as Cunningham’s composers’ scores, until they are interspersed with lyrical harmonies that the dancers recognise with pleasure.
Their base for movement is a firmly planted fourth position, one foot in front of the other (unlike the crossed fifth of the Monotones dancers). Becomingly costumed by Faye Fullerton in soft blues, pinks, greys and a sunny yellow, the cast resemble contemporary youngsters at a gathering. Often one or two will sit or lounge, watching the others, or simply walk cross the rear of the stage to exit the other side. Calvin Richardson leans informally against a post, as though to prop himself up at the end of his solo.
He has leapt in swift, beaten steps, suddenly standing stock still with his arms reaching towards each other across his back. Gradually his hands separate, letting him peek under an elbow to check whether we’re still watching. We are, so he sets off again in stag jumps, arms flapping: then he drags each foot along the ground, reminding us of Montotones. Luca Acri has a solo reminiscent of the random-seeming co-ordination in Cross Currents; James Hay partners Anna Rose O’Sullivan solicitously, rather as Ball did Magri, until he lets loose in multiple spins only a virtuoso ballet dancer could achieve.
Hannah Grenell impresses in a sensual solo with hopped pirouettes; Beatriz Stix-Brunell asserts herself before being whisked into the air, upside down, by three men who carry her around like a trophy. There are hints of stories and relationships in duets and trios (of course there are trios) with echoes of both Ashton and Cunningham. Like them, and Mark Morris, Tanowitz is expert at exits and entrances, always managing to have the right number of people on stage at any one time.
The intricate structure of her choreography is underlined by the coloured squares of Clifton Taylor’s lighting design. At the end, the procession of dancers links arms again, as if about to perform a folk dance. They sit, then lie on their backs on the rainbow coloured floor, content. Quite some achievement by Pam Tanowitz, to have followed treasured works by Cunningham and Ashton with one that pays homage to both, yet stands on its own as her distinctive tapestry of dance.