New York

Merce Cunningham

Brooklyn Academy of Music

Performance pioneer Oskar Schlemmer had a theory about what he called the stereometry of space, or “felt volume.” Using the concept to describe what it was like for a dancer to move through space, he held that the very slightest movements cause a chain reaction of shifting particles (or performers) throughout a given volume; an understanding of stereometry on the part of dancers should result in more strongly defined body shapes and visual pictures. Schlemmer’s trope might explain how Merce Cunningham’s dancers manage to animate the entire space of the stage. With his breathtaking Scenario, 1997, the choreographer has found a designer to give actual form to the space around the dancers. Rei Kawakubo’s constructed costumes make perceptible, almost tangible, the negative spaces between people. Set against the whitest of white backdrops and lit by an overhead row of fluorescent lights, the boldly outlined costumes make it look as though each performer carries the afterimage of each movement on his or her back (or front or side, as the case may be). Even Kawakubo’s handling of colors is a marvel. The opening of the piece takes its playful mood from her sailor-blue stripes, like canvas on a deck chair, and parakeet-turquoise checks, like a giant gingham tablecloth. When the same patterns are transposed onto black costumes, the workings of color on mood and imagination are immediately evident. The choreography changes from boisterous to serene, and when the most brilliant red is announced from the wings—a woman, bandaged like a silkworm’s cocoon with only her legs and head protruding, is literally dropped into the arms of four male dancers waiting to catch her—the atmosphere on stage becomes positively ceremonial. The costumes, now longer, resemble priestly robes, some reaching the ankles, and provide the perfect formality for a finale of trembling simplicity. As the light fades to black, each of the fifteen dancers, gently tapping the balls of their feet, turns in place as though perched on a penny.

Cunningham’s rich vocabulary of choreographic movement is a wonder to behold. Partnering, which in his work is always an eloquent puzzle of pieces shuffled together, feels more organic in the ways that the costumes’ protrusions and hollows connect, with the puffed-up chest of one partner, for instance, tucking into the tube around the belly of another. Above all, the exaggerated shapes serve to highlight the dancer’s movement: plies look wider as the stripes separate at the knees; arabesques longer and higher when extended through protrusions from chest and buttocks. At once glamorous and witty, their costumes suggesting characters in a cartoon, the dancers celebrate the energy of a grand master at his most inventive. Like Martha Graham, who in her nineties choreographed Maple Leaf Rag, Cunningham, a wonderfully young seventy-eight, risks parody and spectacle to fool around with his life’s work (samplings of which were shown earlier in the program). The result is a performance that perfects the past while facing a brave new future.

RoseLee Goldberg