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Review: Taking a Chance on Merce Cunningham

By April 2, 2018News, Writing

Originally posted March 21, 2018 by Brian Seibert of The New York Times

Review: Taking a Chance on Merce Cunningham

NYT Critic’s Pick

Right as the show begins, an awful squeaking assaults your ear. Is it the sound, sure to subside, of seats creaking? No, it’s part of the sound score, and it’s going to sustain and swell like a screeching subway car. If you want to watch the dance, you’re going to have to deal with it.

For decades, that kind of noise in a dance program was a signal: You were probably experiencing the radical theater of Merce Cunningham. He died in 2009, and his company disbanded two years later, yet at the Joyce Theater on Tuesday, the squeaking returned and was almost heartwarming — one sign among many of how robustly Cunningham’s work is surviving.

This time, it was a revival of Cunningham’s rarely performed “Signals” (1970) by the Stephen Petronio Company. For the past few years, Mr. Petronio, with the series “Bloodlines,” has been introducing works by distinguished predecessors into his company’s repertory. Cunningham’s “RainForest” was the first.

There is in this project a note of self-promotion, as Mr. Petronio positions himself in a noble lineage. But just as the ear can adjust to the electronic noise — accepting it as the soundscape of an urban jungle or simply tuning it out — so can the mind accommodate or ignore the aggrandizement. In both cases, the choreography is independent of the irritation, and more than ample justification.

“Signals,” despite the din and modernist austerity, is witty and playful. In its final segment, the dancers cue one another with signs. Each holds up fingers to determine his or her place in line, or marks timing by croaking like a frog. As a game that dances around ideas of order and chance, it seems to cloak the role of the choreographer, whereas an earlier trio makes a choreographer-like figure prominent. While a man and woman perform a duet, another man (originally performed by Cunningham) keeps inserting a stick between them, half like a tailor taking measurements, half like a magician cutting someone in two.

“Signals” is modular — a duet, two solos, a trio, a sextet, each with little relation to the others — and the Petronio company’s performance of the distinctly exposing choreography tended to start strong and fray by the end of each section. Still, the effort generated interesting heat. The revival was alive.

After “Signals,” Mr. Petronio’s “Wild Wild World” (2003) is a sharp turn. The music, by Nick Cave, is appealing, and the choreographic style, as immediately identifiable as Cunningham’s, is busier, more aggressive and a whole lot sexier. Yet the resemblances to Cunningham are equally salient: particular coordinations, a tautness of line and a complex multiplicity of action. By and large, the risky juxtaposition with the master puts Mr. Petronio in a flattering light.

In a program note, he attributes the use of pedestrian movement in his new “Hardness 10” to the influence of Yvonne Rainer, whose work he included in last year’s edition of “Bloodlines.” But the alternation between this ensemble movement (patterns of walking and pivoting) and individual bursts of Mr. Petronio’s signature motion is actually closer to the dynamic of “Signals.” Whatever the source, it has germinated something fresh in Mr. Petronio’s choreographic imagination.

In “Hardness 10,” the music, by Nico Muhly, is a droning but handsome composition (played live by Liam Byrne with electronic looping) that changes without seeming to change much. Mr. Petronio’s structure is similarly subtle.

The costumes (hand-painted by Iris Bonner/These Pink Lips) cover the dancers in #MeToo phrases (“She’s the Boss,” “Look Don’t Touch”) whose relation to the dance seems at first coincidental, like that between music and choreography in Cunningham. But eventually the women separate from the men, and topical meanings rise. The fists of their final pose might be a tad on the nose, but sometimes clear signals are called for.

Read the full article with all photos here.

Correction: March 21, 2018 
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misidentified a dancer. In “Wild Wild Word,” the dancer on the right is Ryan Pliss, not Joshua Tuason.
Correction: March 21, 2018 
An earlier version of this article misstated a #MeToo phrase written on a costume. It is “She’s the Boss,” not “He’s the Boss.”
A version of this review appears in print on March 22, 2018, on Page C5 of the New York edition with the headline: Embracing Those Tell-Tale Squeaks.