The late Merce Cunningham, ever the innovator, once declared dance to be “an art in space and time. The object of the dancer is to obliterate that.” The American choreographer (1919-2009) delighted in serendipity, and was known for sequencing his dances via “chance operations” such as coin tosses and computer algorithms. He also divorced them from their accompanying music, tasking his performers with establishing the rhythm and pace themselves. Over his 70-year career, Cunningham created hundreds of pieces this way – an influential body of work that redefined the very praxis of modern dance.
A century on from his birth, the Barbican celebrated his legacy last week with an evening of solos performed by 25 dancers from the likes of Rambert and the Royal Ballet. The show – which joins sister tributes in New York and Los Angeles – packs in 100 solos over 90 minutes, with many performed concurrently. The arrangement is challenging to take in at times, but deftly underscores Cunningham’s rejection of conventional front-and-centre styles of staging. Here, as with many of his own productions, there’s no primary focal point but a variety of angles and orientations for the audience to consider.
We dive straight in with the entire ensemble on stage, the dancers in vivid Lycra. The star power is immense, with luminaries of the UK’s ballet and contemporary scene from Siobhan Davies to Michael Nunn to Beatriz Stix-Brunell, plus rising stars such as Harry Alexander and Toke Broni Strandby. Many have never performed Cunningham technique before, and the collective approach feels solicitous, as if all are determined to honour the choreographer’s famous edict “not to show off, but to show”.
Luke Ahmet (Rambert) and Benjamin Warbis (Yorke Dance Project) inhabit this Apollonian restraint with elegance, breathing verve into statuesque poses and tight, darting leaps. Scottish Ballet’s Sophie Martin is sparkier, offering electric precision in fleet coupés and pirouettes en dedans.
The solos on display – pulled from more than 50 different productions – are unreservedly abstract, prizing the physical manoeuvres at hand over any discernible narrative or theme. Recurring motifs soon emerge, including stringent tilts and hunched stag leaps, all performed barefoot. One of the evening’s standout sequences comes from the Royal’s Francesca Hayward, brisk and rock-steady in a streak of deep, pressing chassés. Jonathan Goddard’s swaying hips, punctuated with a guttural roar, are likewise exceptional.
The production commemorates Cunningham’s singular dance language as well as his methodology, including his practice of choreographing in silence and adding music after the fact. (The dancers here first heard the evening’s soundtrack – a bespoke blend of electric crackles and wayward piano keys – when the curtain went up.) At the same time, the show charts its own distinct course by eschewing a straightforward revival and instead assembling a fresh collage of work.
There are times when this feels like more of an intellectual exercise than an act of reciprocity, and individuals look at sea with the technique. But if it’s contrived, it’s also forward-looking, presenting classic choreography in a new iteration that’s inclusive of a range of performers, from older dancers to one with a visible disability. As Cunningham himself said, art “is not essentially a natural process; it is an invented one”.