Seven 'Duets' For Seven Ballerinas

Posted: March 17, 1990

NEW YORK — Not so long ago, the women of the Merce Cunningham dance company were a polymorphic group. There was usually one ballerina-type among them, but only one. In the last five years or so, however, Cunningham has become increasingly smitten with dancers whose legs can unfold luxuriously high in the air and whose feet are so deeply arched that they could be the envy of Anna Pavlova.

One of Cunningham's recent pieces, August Pace, given its New York premiere on Tuesday at the opening of the company's two-week run at the City Center, is an exquisite exploitation of, and perhaps homage to, the Cunningham ballerina. Although August Pace has many facets, surely the most ravishing are the long adagio sections for each of the seven women in the cast, in which their spectacularly pointed feet, supple knees and seemingly endless thighs rise in long, complicated journeys in the air.

These movements are called developpes. As executed by Cunningham's dancers, they live up to their name: They are truly developed over time and through space. And as if to underscore the sensational aspects of these adagios, Cunningham, in what for him is a very unusual tactic, places each woman in the dead center of the stage, facing the audience head-on. He almost never tells the audience what to watch on his multi-event stage, but he surely does in this dance.

There are indeed other events going on while the women hold forth. For one thing, each woman is engaged in a duet - loosely defined, but a duet nonetheless - while in the background, smaller clusters of dancers move in smaller ways. As the seven duets unfold, the men increasingly become the fluid, unpredictable elements in the dance, while the women take on images of stability - not quite Mother Earth figures, but something approaching rocks of Gibraltar.

It is always hard to pin down the physical sources of imagery, but in August Pace I think it has something to do with the very rooted way in which the women hold their hips as their legs travel freely through the universe. Their pelvises and hip bones don't budge an inch to accommodate the movement of their legs. It's a technical feat that yields a powerful image of female steadfastness.

After seeing August Pace, one immediately imagines the country's more enterprising ballet groups' eagerly seeking rights to perform it. On second thought, though, how many ballet companies have women with the technical abilities of Cunningham's?

August Pace is also stimulating for the ways in which each duet segues into the next. It happens differently each time - with one couple running on and splintering the preceding couple's duet, or by emerging from and dissolving back into the groups in the background, or by overlaps of the same phrases by two different couples. Michael Pugliese's enchanting score for percussion supports the dance with a buoyant pulse, and the backdrop by the Soviet artist Afrika adds a fleeting charm with its drawings of flowers and butterflies and postmarks written in Russian.

Wednesday brought a second New York premiere by Cunningham, Inventions, with a score by John Cage. Although it has some stirring allegro sections, it doesn't hold together as a piece. The major event on the program was Rainforest, created in 1968, an evocation of life in the animal kingdom that dates from an era when Cunningham's vocabulary more strongly expressed a theme than it does now.

Popular wisdom holds that the current troupe, raised on Cunningham's recent classical, formalist works, lacks the dramatic knowhow required by such a dance as Rainforest. Yet this performance was positively rife with stories, tales about female animals with roving eyes and male animals attempting to maintain their dominance and dignity - alas, with slim success. Who would ever have thought that Rainforest could be a gentle bedroom farce? It takes dancers of deep imagination to discover a new text in an old and often-repeated work.

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