THE WORK OF Merce Cunningham is the starting point for any discussion of Laura Dean's theater of today's avant-garde dance. For Cunningham first pioneered an idea Dean and her contemporaries take for granted: that dance is an independent structure. Cunningham required his dancers to count an entire dance in their minds and muscles, not to rely on external cues. The con-centration involed is so demanding that a new performance style evolved as its inevitable consequence--the choreographer directed his dancers to present movement rather than project meaning. As a result, Cunningham audiences confront the countenances of dancers intensely concentrating on movement, rather than dramatizing character, onstage. A second Cunningham innovation is the conception of dance as an "amplification of energies." In this respect Dean is no less in his debt than in the first instance.
Laura Dean is considered a "post-modern" choreographer. Although she and her peers carry forward many of Cunningham's ideas, they diverge from the master's path in significant ways. While Cunningham never directly collaborates with composers--occasionally his dangers do not hear the sound accompaniment until opening night--Dean for several years worked closely with musician Steve Reich, and now composes her own music. She's intersted in showing how dance and music connect at the deepest level: in the use of the physical self as instrument. Unlike Cunningham, who exploits the illusion of randomness by splaying dancers around the performing space, Dean relies on absolute repetition, absolute unison, absolute symmetry.
Mathematics, rather than Cunningham's chance or game structures, underlies Dean's work. A frequent device is the repetition of sequences in units of arithmetical progression. For instance: 64, 32, 16, 8, 4, 2, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64. Dean systematically explores the stage space using the most basic configurations: circles of varying breadth, columns and lines, an occasional diagonal. Clarity, precision--some viewers would say transcendence. Like a minimalist painter, Dean discovers meaning in subtle variations and trans-formations of repeated units. They are simple units immediately accessible to perception: one section consists of spinning, another of jumps.
The funny thing is that recent Cunningham pieces have a similar look, the same precise repetition of unison movements. (As in music, repetition is a fundamental structural principle in dance--sometimes it's buried, other times exposed on the surface.) Why Cunningham, an older artist working directly from his own sensibility, has come to the same sorts of dance ideas as a younger generation of choreographers--which he in the first place inspired--is a puzzle critics seek to explain. Each era, each time has its invisible current--a pulse the significant artist fuses with his own.
FROM "NOTES ON CHOREOGRAPHY" BY LAURA DEAN (1975):
The body is a symbol.
Dancing is the most immediate manifestation of the ability to project thoughts outward into physical form.
The body is our most intimate symbol of consciousness.
The personality is the medium for the translation of feeling into movement. This personality is unique. The one common denominator it contains is energy. Energy, although invisible, can be mathematically worked out and felt intersified. Pure mathematics, I see, as a meeting point with another layer of reality.
The body is a symbol. (E.mc2)
Two friends and I sat down at the Rendezvous after Saturday night's concert, and David told a Zen story:
There was once an old recluse known as the greatest mountain climber in the world. Young students searched the mountains to find him, eager to learn from the great master. Discovering him at last in his solitary cabin, the students were surprised to see no climbing gear, and asked the old man why he had none. The recluse answered that he had realized climbing was an act of the mind and the spirit and not of the body.
That, to David, was the essence of Laura Dean.
And essence is what Dean is about. As does all great dance, here offers an implicit definition, a revelation of what makes dance; something so present, so there that it stays in your gut and grows more powerful afterwards.
A revelation of the most simple thing: gesture, subsumed by rhythm, becomes dance. Dean makes use of a steady pulse to cohere a broad range of movement qualities, sharp and sustained, weighty and light, and movement styles--ballet and tap are two she uses.
A revelation of the most important thing: the sense of pure energy radiating from beyond the dance. Ensemble produces a whole greater than the dancers through which the performers as individuals emerge. If music is, as Henri Bergson implies, our intuition of inner time made concrete, then dance makes concrete our sense of inner aliveness, the sensation of blood through our veins, of that inner motor that keeps us living. Laura Dean creates dances as metaphors for being totally and completely alive.