Tag Archives: cunningham

Tilting Fabulous – Jokes, Dance and LGBTQ History

This week, dear readers, I heard something in a classroom that I’ve never heard in a classroom before: I heard a professor make an in-joke about Merce Cunningham being a gay man.

…. Ok, context: Merce Cunningham is probably the most important abstract choreographer of the 20th century, in part because of the incredible collaborations he produced with his partner, John Cage. Here’s a link to a solo from Split Sides, which is not one of their collaborations (instead it’s Cunningham and Radiohead/Sigur Ros), but is a really great bit of dancing if you’ve not seen his work before. The music and choreography is based in chance procedures, and the movement itself is put together from smaller elements (curves, extensions, turns, tilts etc.) in the same way that you might put together Legos to make abstract sculpture.

Cunningham and Cage lived and worked in an era when homosexuality was just not something you could do and have it be ok with the American government. Their relationship vanished from the public view of their work, to the point that as a student in the 21st century, at a university with Cunningham technique and Cunningham on the academic curriculum, I never head John Cage referred to as anything other than an artistic collaborator. Even today I hear people trying to smooth out the edges between the man and the art: Cunningham and Cage had an “intimate relationship,” they were “very close.”

In part I understand why that happens. The really big deal about Cunningham and Cage’s work is how abstract it is: their entire philosophy was grounded in removing obvious referential information from what the audience could see, and so there’s an instinct by educators to avoid personal information that isn’t ideologically relevant to the choreography (… or at least that’s the official statement). Contrast that with someone like Martha Graham, who’s choreography is all about her personal self, or look at a dance world where people desperately try to look for the story, and you can see why you might try to teach Cunningham without the romantic sub-plot.

But.

Dance as a field is famously accepting of LGBTQ life styles; in fact I am frequently the subject of some envy from my friends in university departments that have not yet embraced trans identities, or “they” as a singular pronoun. That said, the dominant narrative of LGBTQ people in dance tends to fall into two stereotypes: gay men doing ballet, and super-queers making postmodern work about queerness. Those stereotypes fall down in practice, but it is very difficult to find, for example, famous lesbian ballerinas whose sexual identity is “out” in the same way that Nijinsky’s is.

Is that a problem? Well I certainly won’t insist that anyone has an obligation to out themselves for any reason, even my blogging. The stereotype that all male dancers are homosexuals is another nasty hangover from the 1900s that we’ve had to deal with, and I can understand totally the response of: “We’re all just dancers, ok?” …just because your job is to get up on a stage and perform does not eliminate your right to privacy, or mean that your sexuality has to be a public part of how you do your identity.

On the other hand, if we are all “just dancers,” who can make work about whatever we like regardless of gender or sexual identity, then isn’t one way of making that clear to acknowledge and normalise the diverse range of dancers and choreography out there? To demonstrate that your sexual identity has absolutely no bearing on how you dance or the kinds of dancing you can do? When I finally found out about Merce and John it didn’t change how I felt about their work, but it did make me frustrated with a system of books and teachers that had – by omission – implied that their relationship did not exist: that had known, and yet allowed me not to know.

The reason I spotted, remembered, and blogged about a throw-away joke in the middle of a technique class was precisely because it indicated a normalacy to Cunningham’s sexual identity – and the expectation that everyone else in the room would share that understanding. To joke about Cunningham not being interested in female dancers, you have to believe that the majority of people listening a) know about Cunningham’s sexual preference and b) don’t think it’s that much of a big deal (either in general, or in relationship to his artistic work). Note: this is a different thing to making a joke criticising Cunningham’s identity, where you assume that most people know, and that they share your (incorrect) opinion of gay-ness as a bad thing.

So… thank you, anonymous professor*, for providing a social model in which Cunningham can be an abstract artist, and a gay man, without any conflict between those two identities. And of course thank you to Cunningham, and Cage, for making awesome art, one of my favourite dance techniques, and just in general – for being tilting fabulous.

*who shall remain anonymous unless they ask to be identified.

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Events between a place and candy: Two reviews of spring in New York

“Event,” Robert Swinston and Compagnie CNDC Angers

It begins with a ripple of silk. Thirty or so panels in white, brown, pink yellow and red tossed out into the air as if an unseen dancer had suddenly run behind.

Perhaps, in that moment, much of what needs to be said about Merce Cunningham’s work has already been said: elegant, random, playful and vivid – evocation without signification. And the dance is just beginning.

Initially I was wary of Robert Swinston’s Event at the Joyce, a combine of various Cunningham repertory works on the Compagnie CNDC-Angers, or at least I went with my reconstructionist head on and a lot of questions to ask. What was he trying to do? Was this a Merce Cunningham work or a Robert Swinston? To what extent would he play on the (to my mind) very particular performance circumstances implied in the combination of “Cunningham” and “Event” in the same program?

The silk, to some extent, put my mind at rest, as did the sumptuous score emanating from John King and Gelsey Bell, tucked into the bottom left corner of the auditorium. The music existed, a crystalline thing of its own, creating synchronous moments with the movement of the stage and yet never narrating, or making the textual experience overly rich. And still, the dance is just beginning.

The eight dancers slowly form a diagonal line across the stage, rising to demi-point as they join hands to arrive en tableau. The opening of the piece says “duets” perhaps too loudly for my taste – with an emphasis on paired relationships and partnering, and more than a passing focus on centre stage. Several sequences are screamingly slow, while others sneak into virtuosity even as you admire the ease of their flow.

But over time, everything relaxes. Solos and group sections flourish in counterpoint, the technique and the dance settle more softly into each other. This is the repertoire of Cunningham’s I best enjoy: the play within the smaller things, the trio with linked arms who gallop and jump in parallel around the space like children, without at all becoming childish. I am particularly drawn to Flora Rogeboz, whose timing has both a softness and a surety, and who cannot help but smile as she yet again arrives to make the connection to her partner just so.

It is not an uncommon practice to take sections of Cunningham pieces and make of them something other, the wonderful Bride and the Batchelor’s exhibition played on a similar theme in London’s Barbican, but Event succeeds uniquely in being a work, and the works, and the work simultaneously. It is watchable in and of itself; to those in on the joke the individual pieces of repertoire come smiling to the light; the whole reassures you that the project of Cunningham, and Swinston, is out there, alive and well.

The silk panels by Jackie Matisse blow over Anna Chirescu in a delightfully unchoreographed moment of interaction. The dancers fill the space, prehensile feet flicking the floor, grasping it to bounce rhythmically in fourth position, the lights go out… and yet the dance is just beginning?

“between a place and candy: new works in pattern + repetition + motif.” Is a new exhibition at 1285 Avenue of the Americas, curated by Jason Andrew and organized by Norte Maar. The title comes from a poem by Gertrude Stein, who sought in her prose to “articulate a conscious presence where writing recreates itself anew in each successive moment.” …I must confess that for weeks I have been calling the exhibit “between my brain and candy,” so I excited was I by the number of elements in the event description that promised to render the experience absolutely delicious.

I was not disappointed. While individually distinctive, each work deeply explores some facet of pattern, repetition and/or motif, bringing an harmonious sense of curiosity to the collection. Resonant is the impression that pattern is both natural and human, micro and macrocosmic, its investigation fruitful, rich and yet strikingly simple. Mary Judge’s Bacio takes inspiration from decorative architectural motifs to bring us geometric flowers with the aged patina of stone, while Kerry Law’s Empire State Building Series draws back and watches a single building over time, using the stability of architectural repetition to track an ever-changing perception of the New York sky.

Many of the pieces have a vibrant kinetic energy, frequently through the play of optical illusion: the simplest of patterns, such as Joan Witek’s Massai confounding our mind’s attempt to render them static and comprehensible. Meanwhile the work that is most conceptually movement-oriented, Julia Gleich’s Combinatorics: a study of infinite or countable discrete structures becomes a meditative contemplation of atomic space, and the variation in cellular replication: a dancer’s feet tracing pathways like electrons around a nucleus, the gesture at once always the same and yet never duplicated.

I was gratified to see textiles emerging as a theme within the selection of works. While obviously generative, practices of knitting, weaving etc have only recently begun to be deemed creative, and their inclusion in several pieces added another layer of repetition to the overall design. Fiber arts, with their cultural link to the feminine, offer a hint of transgression to fine art practices, a challenge to the hierarchy of the traditional gallery; in this exhibition we do not forget that the canvas itself is an act of pattern.

The public opening of “between a place and candy” was bustling, making it hard to get as up-close and personal with some of the works as I’d have liked. My personal favourite, Libby Hartle’s Untitled #21 (Arrow) requires a close in viewing to truly appreciate the finesse with which graphite shading has been applied to create the concentric diamonds of the collage – I urge the viewer to take the time to find the units of the pattern, and consider them as individuals even as each work is enjoyed as a whole. In my mind the gallery becomes a living dialogue with the artworks: people stepping in and away, moving on to repeat the motif, recreating the experience of the works anew in each moment of changing space, between this place and candy.

Exhibition runs through June 12th 2015 at 1285 Avenue of the Americas Art Gallery