The Merce Cunningham Dance Company

Barbican Theatre

Production photo

The programme showing at the Barbican this week is one of Cunningham's Events, collages of elements from the repertory together with new material especially devised for the space of performance and with 'artwork' designed for the piece by guest artists. Last night's suitably subtle and enigmatic projected backdrop was the work of renowned British artist Richard Hamilton, and throughout the week each performance will be accompanied by artwork by a different artist.

Since the first Event in 1964 Cunningham has devised work for a variety of spaces, museums, gyms, basketball courts, open spaces, St Mark's Square in Venice among them, so the main auditorium in the Barbican might seem somewhat prosaic in comparison. On the contrary, Cunningham utilises the vast and lofty space so that it collaborates with the quiet purity that has become characteristic of Cunningham's dance. In this space the dancers seem at one and the same time awesomely beautiful, yet effortlessly simple and down to earth. The dance is so superbly understated that it lulls and invigorates simultaneously.

Cunningham has said that dance is the physical manifestation of inner spirituality and that the discipline and rigour of the dancer's training is a means to freedom, to liberating the body so that natural expression shines through. And this is exactly what is happening on stage at the Barbican. There is no drama, no striving for narrative, nor emotional expression, it's an 'experience of dance', as Cunningham would put it, something that balances elegantly and eloquently on the cusp of the wave between the humble and the sublime. The perfect balance lies in the intensity of stillness and the tranquillity in motion combined as the dancers bodies simply 'allow' the movements to unfold in space and time.

The life-long collaboration between choreographer Cunningham and composer John Cage has ensured a mutual understanding that it unique. Cunningham's movement has always remained independent of the score, so that the soundscape supports, pleases and intrigues, occasionally comments, humorously, on the dance, but never intrudes or overwhelms. Shiny blue body stockings cohere with the subtly coloured lighting to enhance the sleek and artless physicality of the dancers. In fact, the costumes and lighting are fabulous, not least in that they blend so seamlessly into the entire aesthetic. Cunningham's work seems to achieve a remarkable blend of engagement and detachment that is both exhilarating and calming at the same time. And equally, its artfulness lies in its honest and uncluttered transparency, mind and body in balance, an incredible lightness of being rather than an ecstasy of emotion. It is Cunningham's deep respect for and profound understanding of the human body and spirit combined that informs his work and so convinces and delights the spectator.

I have to admit it was a treat to see Cunningham in person take a curtain call at the side of the stage, frail and wobbly, leaning on a stick, with his characteristic grin spreading from ear to ear, topped by thinning but still irrepressible silver curls. At 86 he is the last of the great Modernists of dance. Starting his career with Martha Graham in the '30s he can testify in person to the origins of modern American dance in German Expressionism. Spending a life at the very epicentre of the American art world, working with composers such as Cage, artists such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Willem de Koning, founding the first company at the renowned Black Mountain College, he is the very embodiment of the American avant garde.

The Merce Cunningham Dance Theatre is at the Barbican until 19th June

Reviewer: Jackie Fletcher

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