LIFE – A love letter to Merce Cunningham
Part of London International Mime Festival
London, Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells
14 January 2022
Dance inspired by Merce Cunningham, crossed with juggling. That’s the unique premise of Gandini Juggling’s LIFE – a love letter to Merce Cunningham, a world premiere at the Lilian Baylis Studio. If you’re reading this, I can sense a raised eyebrow or two. By way of background, the company have considerable form when it comes to dance / juggling hybrids, working with choreographers such as Alexander Whitley in a contemporary dance mash up, and under the influence of Pina Bausch in Smashed, their much toured hit. Life is produced by agreement with the Merce Cunningham Trust and with the active participation of Jennifer Goggans, a former member of the Cunningham company.
The result is an unexpected, joyful delight, performed with skill and nonchalance, the abstract choreography of balls in flight complementing some recognisable Cunningham moves. It asks you to look hard at the patterns our bodies can make and how. It is quite something to see a performer hold an arabesque and simultaneously juggle three balls with one outstretched hand.
Sean Gandini steps forward to introduce the program, and to demonstrate some of the basic juggling combinations. He even explains how the work is put together, taking a phrase from Cunningham’s CRWDSPCR demonstrated by Goggans and then how it is reworked over two interlinked bodies and then the juggling moves woven in. The performers make it look remarkably easy. If you want to you can play “hunt the Cunningham quote” as you watch. There was something that for me recalled a moment from Ocean, but it was gone in a flash. The idea of adding levels of difficulty to the dance also put me in mind of Cunningham’s Scenario where strange, padded, costumes gave particular challenges to the performers. But you don’t need to be a Cunningham expert to enjoy this: maybe it’s better to let it wash over you and enjoy the shapes.
The work falls loosely into three sections, first based around balls, then hoops and clubs. The performers are startlingly well coordinated and synchronised. Sometimes you could be persuaded that the balls aren’t being thrown at all, but have reached a mysterious autonomy and are moving of their own volition in patterns of their own creation. Their movement has a hypnotic quality. But our performers are human. Sometimes there’s a drop. They shrug and carry on.
The hoops seem a particularly good fit for the dance material: they are hung on outstretched arms, on a folded knee, around the neck, as well as flying through the air. Lighting comes more into play as the work progresses, picking out the flying objects. In the section for the clubs, with the stage largely dark, the clubs themselves fly up into a band of light where their colours spark and catch fire. Their spins leave a blur on the retina. (Lighting is by Guy Hoare.)
The nine performers are casually dressed in white T shirts and jeans. We have a mix of backgrounds, some predominantly from the juggling background, others more dance based. The work is carefully constructed so that the differences in training don’t leap out at you. The different personalities come across strongly. Veteran Kati Ylä-Hokkala has a serenity and composure even when engaged in the most complex manoeuvres. Yu-Hsien Wu, who has previously danced for Russell Maliphant, exudes a quiet fierceness. Sakari Männistö is droll. Everyone gets a chance to shine. Jennifer Goggans makes her juggling debut. What a brave woman! (And so accomplished.)
The soundtrack for the performance is provided by Caroline Shaw. Seated unobtrusively at a desk in one corner of the stage she plays the violin, whispers, sings from time to time and mixes in noises from the outside world, all the time watching the performers intently. It’s far more compelling than any recorded soundtrack might be: it’s all very much in the moment.
LIFE hurtles close to anarchy at the close but without disintegrating. It holds the attention throughout and never drags in the course of just over an hour. Gandini’s underlying affection and admiration for the source material is always apparent. There’s a lot of pleasure in watching long time collaborators exercise their considerable skills, always at ease with one another. It’s all so good natured: you are convinced that the performers are having a good time, and you are too. The audience adored it.