As part of the Merce Cunningham Centennial celebrations, Rambert dance company took over all four floors of Sadler’s Wells before the on-stage performance of this year’s Event. On display were video documentaries, a motion-capture installation and pop-up performances of solos and duets by the Event cast. How much information was retained by socialising theatre-goers would be hard to determine, but that wasn’t the point. Cunningham used to stage his composite Events in busy, unorthodox spaces, surprising spectators into experiencing dance.
He started combining extracts from previous dances into a single performance in 1964 as a way of re-using existing material in places unsuited for formal performances. Fitting sections of dances together was a jigsaw challenge for his dancers, since the configurations would be different every time. Each Event was unpredictable, requiring fresh reactions. Viewers were not expected to identify the extracts (though Cunningham fans take pride in spotting the original sources). Watching his choreography without a context is like looking at modern art without preconceptions.
The first British critic to champion Cunningham’s work in the 1960s was Nigel Gosling. He wrote about dance for The Observer, under the pseudonym Alexander Bland, and about art under his own name. He understood the zeitgeist Cunningham was coming from, the desire for indeterminacy conflicting with a need for order and ritual. Painting, music and dance were undergoing seismic shifts. Modern art works can persist (if they don’t self-destruct) after their creator’s death, but now that Cunningham has gone and his company disbanded, what remains of his legacy?
Rambert can draw on records of ten of his works that entered its repertoire over the past 40 years. Most of the present company members won’t have performed them, but they have been coached by former Cunningham dancers for Rambert’s Event, arranged by Jeannie Steele. Versions of it have been performed since 2014 in various locations, including the company’s new headquarters in Waterloo. This Event has its own backdrop of panels based on Gerhard Richter’s set of six oil paintings inspired by John Cage, Cunningham’s colleague and life partner. Costumes by Stevie Stewart reflect the streaks of colour and dense textures of Richter’s paintings.
The camouflage effect would be unchanging were it not for the beautiful lighting (by Rambert’s technicians) that brings out hidden colours in the panels and remodels the dancers’ bodies. They move mysteriously, driven by a common purpose and intense awareness of each other. At times, they seem abstract shape-makers with the spaces between and around them as important as their angular tilting and torqueing moves. At other times, they resemble animals or birds, solitary or clustered together. They go from seeming uninvolved with each other to making gestures of intimacy: an extended hand is acknowledged, a shoulder touched, legs and arms intertwined.
The big tribute in April this year on what would have been Cunningham’s 100th birthday, Night of 100 Solos, performed simultaneously in London, New York and Los Angeles, was tantalising because nobody danced together. Rambert’s Event is a timely reminder of Cunningham’s groupings in duets, trios and multiple combinations. At the start, for instance, Miguel Altunaga, alone in a swift solo, is joined by another, then another, until four, six or eight dancers are closely linked together. Suddenly, a woman was suspended in the air by three men to form a bridge for others to pass beneath. (I recognised the opening of Sounddance from Ballet de Lorraine’s performance in the Linbury two weeks earlier.)
The live music, or sound scores, for Cunningham’s work is intended to bear no relation to the dance apart from its duration. Rambert’s musical ‘accompaniment’ for its Event sounded perfectly pleasant, created by Philip Selway, drummer of Radiohead, and performed by him and fellow composers Quinta and Adrian Utley. Sorry, I wasn’t listening and I couldn’t see the musicians in the pit. I focused on the dancers moving entrancingly against Richter’s ravishing backdrop – an association Cunningham did not intend. Contrary to his precept that dance should be independent of design, his creations tend to be identified by their sets and costumes. So Rambert’s Event will always be remembered as the one with the bodysuits matching Richter’s Cage paintings.