Merce Cunningham
Sadler's Wells

Rambert, Event, Merce Cunningham

A lively, painterly evening of dance both in the foyer and onstage for Rambert’s second programme at Sadler’s Wells this week, a homage to legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham in the year marking the centenary of his birth resurrecting a signature string of pieces linked into one performance called Event.

Here, extracts from 10 dances—Septet (1953) to Pond Way (1998)—have been assembled into an 80-minute-long performance exemplifying Cunningham’s desire to separate movement from music while collaborating with contemporary artists interested in similar philosophies to merge performance with the visual arts.

Score, choreography and sets and costumes are produced in isolation and come together only at the final stage. Tonight, the music, performed live by Phillip Selway of Radiohead, was commissioned specially as are the sets: long painterly screen-prints as backdrops that change colour, based on the Cage series of paintings by German expressionist painter Gerhard Richter.

The result? Dancers intentionally don’t respond to the music as they fly, jump and pound the stage in Richter-inspired, paint-splattered unitards, weighed down in rigidly precise Cunningham technique, making it hard to follow. While the excellent Rambert dancers are to be admired for their execution of Cunningham’s style with such keen attention to detail, the challenge is to find focus when all elements are out of sync.

It's easy to drift down and look at the musicians, averting eyes from the stage, while dancers continually weave their way in and out of music, sometimes moving in silence and often in anticipation of something that never quite builds. But perhaps this is the point. There is no beginning, middle or end, just a continuous flow of abstracted movements, music and colourful sets each speaking individually and rarely blending as a whole.

It could be easier to watch in a gallery space where there are parallel activities playing out around the main Event, never the focus in its entirety. You can imagine how it blasted the boundaries back in 1964 when it was first created; the piece has been performed in around the Rambert studios as well as the Tate Gallery.

As Cunningham himself said, “events consist of complete dances, excerpts of dances and often new sequences arranged for the particular performance and place with the possibility of several separate activities happening at the same time—to allow for the experience of dance.’”

Ultimately, then, it is the pop-up performances dotted around various foyer levels at Sadler’s Wells prior to the main stage show that lend a natural connective space for the choreography to come into its own. There’s something about watching these technically assured dancers close-up in their intense, precise execution of Cunningham lines and forms in amongst the bustle of a busy foyer that creates such dynamic drama as the movements breathe in and out of the chaos of packed surroundings.

Under the directorship of Benoit Swan Pouffer, Rambert is experiencing new contemporary works but, at the same time, Rambert's Event proves that Swan Pouffer is sticking to staple classics in the company’s repertoire. Perhaps, though, this piece is one that is best reserved for public spaces to enhance the experience of dance rather than just the execution of it.

Reviewer: Rachel Nouchi

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