Sunday, May 22, 2016

Cunningham Treasures Restaged at BAC

Silas Riener in Changeling. Photo: Stephanie Berger
One of the most fascinating and vexing recurring topics in dance is that of legacy. We have watched as various companies and choreographers have grappled with the same question: when the creator is gone, how, or even should, the work live on? And as many of our generation's finest continue to age (how dare they!), the issue will only grow in prominence.

The cruelest cut is to stop performing the work, with some exceptions. This is essentially the path that the Merce Cunningham Trust has followed with Cunningham's oeuvre, dissolving the company after a grand last hurrah tour whose rich repertory and celebratory mode made the works' sudden absence all the more acutely felt. The last denizens of that troupe of course pop up periodically in their own projects, or in other companies, wielding their Cunningham technique like a superpower (incredibly strong feet and balance, a rock solid core and control of the limbs that radiate from it, a lack of self-consciousness, etc.). Some dances are performed by other companies, who enlist an authorized re-stager's help, but it will never be the same as his native dancers doing it.

A recent event at Baryshnikov Arts Center focused on a film from 1958 of three short Cunningham dances. The film was made by a German TV company, which archived it in a canister marked simply, "BALLETT." (Hear Marina Harss talk about it on WNYC.) It apparently took some persuasion to make the staff keep searching for the film when at first it couldn't be found. The black and white footage shows a spritely, riveting Cunningham in the solo Changeling, plus the duets Suite for Two and Springweather and People. The latter had been performed in repertory, but the first two dances had not been seen in many years.

Benny Olk and Vanessa Knouse. Photo: Stephanie Berger

The Trust, led by Patricia Lent, reconstructed those two dances, which were performed after a screening of the film at BAC. To our great fortune, Cunningham dancer Silas Riener took on Changeling; he wore a red facsimile of the original tattered green costume designed by Robert Rauschenberg. Riener seemed to blossom extraordinarily in a solo as part of Split Sides, performed at BAM in 2011 in Cunningham's Legacy Tour, and has since remained a standard-bearer of the technique, finding the elusive balance of fire and technique.

We see both of those qualities in Changeling, as Riener strikes a pose, his gaze burning past the theater's walls, and explodes into another one, twisting his body at angles that defy human mechanics. In the film, Cunningham's elfin features evoke a supernatural being, with piercing eyes and a compact, sinewy body. The opportunity to compare these two renditions side-by-side is one to treasure.

Benny Olk and Vanessa Knouse perfomed the duet, full of Cunningham's experimentation and daring. The muscular Olk, with a raptor's focus, sported blue leotards, the top with Merce's signature pointed collar, and the lithe Knouse, a mustard unitard. And as gratifying as it is to see the final company members in performance, seeing these two talented dancers for the first time added a poignancy, knowing very few others will be performing in special events such as this. When they occur, pounce.

No comments: