New York

Merce Cunningham

City Center

Attempting to interpret the meaning of a dance by Merce Cunningham is probably a futile proposition to begin with. One of the few localizable aspects of Cunningham’s choreography over the past forty or so years has been its defiance of one fixed reading, and it is this nonimposing quality that makes Cunningham’s choreography so liberating. He is curious about process—as opposed to concentrating exclusively on an end result, and this focus has always saved the work from didacticism and predictability.

Through the years, Cunningham’s idea of process has depended on the use of chance operations, the interdependence of sound and movement, the use of multiple focal points, and the integration of everyday movement into dance. With Trackers, 1991, Cunningham, has for the first time, used a computer in the process of choreographing a work.

Does Trackers feel computer generated? Not that I know what a computer-generated dance would feel like, but I don’t think so. There is often an image, an action, or an event that provides a possible springboard for what we see on stage, and perhaps that’s how the computer subtly served Trackers. A year ago, when Cunningham had just begun to experiment with the computer, he revealed a playful “what happens if I do this?” disposition, expressing a fascination with the possible positions and gestures available to him, via the Life Forms “three dimensional human animation system.”

Cunningham has often conceived of space-time within dance in terms of a grid, as opposed to a more linear manner, and perhaps in this respect the computer screens did not feel particularly alien to him. The computer’s own “logic” probably necessitated that Cunningham consider more closely how one actually gets from point A to point B, that is, how one single gesture becomes a larger movement, how one movement evolves into a sequence, how single dancers interact with each other to make configurations, and finally how in the most simple terms the body, its joints, and its reflexes work. In Trackers, one part of a dancer’s body is often anchored in a specific position, and we see what the rest of his or her body can do in relation to that. Members of the company push and pull each other, and shifting balances are acutely articulated. The movement is punctuated by Emanuel Dimas de Melo Pimenta’s grunting score, Gravitational Sounds; and Dove Bradshaw’s very minimal decor, with its luminous, intensely purple backdrop, becomes an immeasurable void for the dancers to fill.

What seems so wonderfully contradictory is how Trackers, rather than evoking something particularly futuristic, as one might expect, is instead reminiscent of some of his older work. The dancers abandon uniformity and overtly balletic conventions in their performance, and the choreography itself explodes with a bewildering feral grace that, with only a few exceptions, one rarely experiences at dance concerts these days. Perhaps Cunningham—onstage longer in Trackers than he has been in other dances of recent years—was able to move through time in more ways than one. Indeed, his own actions, especially toward the end of Trackers, reiterate the idea of a time warp; he first partners with a small, portable barre, which suggests, possibly, the basic positions from which a dance grows (or the master returning to the foundations of his art). Later, he moves the barre laterally across the stage in order to stay behind his frenetic company. No matter what else occurs, it is impossible to take one’s eyes off Cunningham’s quick, nonsweeping movements, which are so clearly the genesis of what’s going on around him. In Trackers, each dancer’s activity, however, feels so charged that when the piece ends, one is momentarily dazed, breathless, and invigorated.

Melissa Harris