Cunningham’s Boundless Ocean; A First Giselle, and a Last

We know how Merce Cunningham works and how he thinks—we’ve been told, over and over again, by him and by

We know how Merce Cunningham works and how he thinks—we’ve been told, over and over again, by him and by others. We know that the dance is a thing apart from the music; that elements of the dance have been determined by chance procedures, often involving the I Ching; that we’re meant to concentrate on the moment, on the human body doing certain things that may be disconnected from the previous moment, or the next. No choreographer has been more explicit about his goals and methods, and Cunningham seems to believe that his theorizing is what makes it possible for him to do what he does.

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What it doesn’t do, alas, is help me watch him. I just don’t care—or haven’t the intelligence to absorb—that he’s “mapped out the space, dividing it into 19 sections, each with 8 sub-areas,” as my friend Nancy Dalva recently reported in The Times; or that “He made the 128 movement sequences.” If you’re caught up in the dance, you’re not counting; and if you’re counting, you’re not caught up in the dance. (It’s the same with the notorious 32 fouettés in Swan Lake.)

Cunningham has just revived a very long piece, Ocean (1994), at the new and magnificent Rose Theater, whose performance area was reconfigured into a circle, the audience seated all around—with the 112(!) orchestral musicians, in the top balcony, also ringing the stage. At four points around the circle were placed digital monitors, counting off the seconds. (Ocean lasts exactly 90 minutes.) No doubt this device was of help to the dancers in keeping track of where they were in the piece, since the sound (a layer of orchestral music by Andrew Culver and a layer of electronic music by David Tudor), although at times exciting and certainly ocean-suggestive, was hardly something the dancers could hold on to.

But the monitors performed another function as well: They gave us something to hold on to. Since Cunningham long ago dismissed narrative from his work (although he danced enough of it with Martha Graham) and also dismissed music as the basis of dance (although he studied at Balanchine’s School of American Ballet), the countdown provided a badly needed chronometric structure for the viewer—or at least for this viewer.

Which isn’t to say that I didn’t take pleasure from innumerable ravishing passages among the outpourings of invention that Cunningham always provides. Clusters of dancers ran on from behind recessed curtains, sometimes working in twos, threes, fours, sometimes working alone. On occasion, a large group would be hectic with activity while a single couple across the circle would pose in absolute stillness, the woman in an endless supported arabesque; at other times, a couple would take a brilliantly original sculpted position on the floor, in contrast to the buzz of motion surrounding them. Twice, all 14 dancers claim the space together—climaxes we welcome, even if we don’t understand why they’re there. (Maybe just because they’re crowd-pleasers? Cunningham, despite his purity, is also a showman.)

The Cunningham vocabulary, with its tilts and nestlings and crooks of the limbs, provides him with endless opportunities that satisfy both viewer and dancer—his dancers never look less than happy and fulfilled in what they’re doing. And in this very long piece, the constant flow of events moved—yes—like an ocean tide. But we know why the ocean’s tide comes in and out; we’re not meant to know why Cunningham’s does, we’re only meant to accept. It’s hard, though, to break the habit of a lifetime, as he requires us to do. Perhaps animals, birds, butterflies really do live only in the moment; people, for good or ill, are stuck with both memory and anticipation.

Through Ocean’s 90 minutes, the pale unitards worn by the dancers at the start are exchanged for brighter ones; at the end, they’re all dark purple. That’s a straightforward progression. But it’s the only one I could identify, other than the inexorable flashings of the digital monitors, reminding me that this, too, would pass.

To go from Ocean to Giselle is a mighty leap, yet up the street, while Cunningham was holding court at the Rose, at the Met, A.B.T. was presenting a week of that Romantic masterpiece. Every ballerina feels she has to dance Giselle (it’s like Hamlet for actors), but not every ballerina is equipped to. Even so, two of the Giselles were remarkable, if for very different reasons. Diana Vishneva was giving her first New York Giselle; Amanda Mckerrow her last. The symmetry was surely unintentional, yet it revealed a great deal, not least because it reminded us of how a great role is susceptible to an infinite variety of interpretations.

My own Giselles go back to Alicia Markova in the early 1940’s (not that I understood what I was seeing, but I’ve never forgotten her famous elevation and otherworldliness). Fonteyn, Ulanova, Alonso, Fracci, Makarova, Kirkland are among those who moved (or failed to move) me. But no one of them demonstrated as great a command of the pure dance elements of Giselle as Vishneva, whose single performance last week was even more astounding than her triumphs in Swan Lake the week before. Strictly adhering to the text, she presented the famous moments (well, they’re all famous) with such clarity and ease that they looked new—abstractly perfect in their execution, yet personal through the individuality of her technical prowess.

An example: At the start of Act II, Giselle goes slowly into an unsupported arabesque. It’s devilishly difficult to do it smoothly, let alone at a completely steady tempo; most ballerinas can’t hide their shakiness, or their anxiety about possible shakiness. Vishneva’s leg rose simply and inexorably in a calm adagio phrase—there was no anxiety because there was no problem: Shakiness was not a possibility. Later, she traversed the stage in a streak of lightning and perfect entrechats-quatre that she just flicked off without hesitation or effort, without even calling attention to them. The felicity and excitement of this moment, which can be so blurred and inconclusive!

Is she as great a Giselle as she is a dancer? Probably not. In Act I, she’s appropriately playful, then tragic; in Act II, exquisite and tenderly spiritual. But she doesn’t break your heart in the mad scene like Ulanova (or for that matter, Fonteyn or Makarova), or chill you with the frenzy, the dementia, that Spessivtseva reveals in the fragment of film I mentioned several weeks ago. Nor does she fully embody the love that extends beyond death the way, again, Ulanova did. Vishneva’s Giselle is first and foremost an embodiment of dance. But remember: Giselle, more than any other ballet, is about dance. Act I shows us a girl who insists on dancing even if it may cost her her life. Act II shows us men being forced to dance until they die. There’s every justification for a ballerina whose Giselle, however dramatically subtle and convincing, is ultimately more dancer than anything else.

Two nights after Vishneva came McKerrow, in her farewell performance after 23 years with the company, 18 of them as a principal. It’s been an odd career, not going quite so far as it might have (should have?). Because she doesn’t have the most powerful technique, lacking the kind of slam-bang virtuosity and salesmanship that A.B.T. often seems to prefer, she didn’t soar to the very top like a Cynthia Gregory or a Paloma Herrera. Instead, she’s made her career as a lyrical, dramatic dancer— intelligent, restrained, touching; wonderful in Tudor (Pillar of Fire, for instance) … and in Giselle. This final performance was deeply moving, not only for her profound identification with the heroine but for her beautiful phrasing and lovely musicality. There’s no one like her left at A.B.T. now, and the audience knew it: The ovation that rose to meet her at the final curtain was spontaneous and heartfelt—and deserved.

Cunningham’s Boundless Ocean;  A First Giselle, and a Last