The Eloquence of Gesture

Merce Cunningham & Company At the Boston English High School, February 25, 26, 28, March 1.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS, in Jacob Bronowski's view, is a matter of perceiving profound unity in apparent unlikeness. Perhaps it is a measure of a choreographer's genius that he can sustain with a sense of humor and discovery a suggested equivalence between a dancer and a stuffed sack.

This is exactly what happens in "Squaregame," one of seven dances offered by avant-garde master Merce Cunningham and his company in performances at Boston English High School last week. The four bunches of sacks which initially define the peripheries of movement become tongue-in-cheek metaphors for the dancers' own bodies. The sacks are whirled or swung or tossed through space; Cunningham himself falls dead-weight on a group of dancers and is dragged across the floor like a sack; later, he is tossed up and down between two dancers the way two children would flip an unwieldy pillow. There is no hint of moral implication or sociological statement in Cunningham's unlikely equation. Instead, he catches the audience off-balance with an impishly daring physical metaphor in order to explore an aspect of the way bodies move in space.

THAT WAS THE THEME of last week's recitals, as it has been of all Cunningham's choreography: the basic processes of the human body's motion, discerned with a painstaking and endlessly refreshing eye. Like a painter absorbed in something as slight as the fall of light on a glass jar, Cunningham is fascinated by the eloquent detail: a dancer's leg arcing upward like a searchlight against the sky, the drift of weight in space when the body leans slowly backwards, dancers bounding across the stage like stones skipped across water. The patterns aren't only visual, either: in one dance, "Torse," where there was very little sound accompaniment, Cunningham created a whole aural superstructure from the rhythmic thuds of the dancers' feet on the floor. Cunningham doesn't work with an elite vocabulary of "dance movements," either. Instead, he catches the casual moment from the street or the staircase and lets it assume intrinsic importance onstage, the way a poet takes the words of commerce and conversation and frees them to approach the condition of music.

Often, the building-block of a Cunningham choreographic sequence is a very basic component of movement, something so radically simple that ordinarily one wouldn't think about it at all. The subject of "Torse," for instance, is change of weight: the disturbance of symmetry when weight shifts from one foot to another, the still points of fragile equilibrium when a dancer balances on one leg, the other crooked in the air behind her. Like a drop of oil spreading through cloth, the point of focus begins to color one's perception of all kinds of movement: a jump becomes weight gathered down and exploded upward; one dancer lifting another becomes weight gliding in slow motion, a leisurely delighting in the measure of lift and rest.

"Sounddance" expands the formula to include the weight of bodies in relation to each other, exploring the way movement modifies when it encounters other movement. Here, the knotting and swirling, folding and unfolding of two or more dancers works a flowing balance between frantic spinning and the entropy of falling weight. The individual dancer is buffeted helplessly, like a banner flapping in the wind; but the linkage patterns of clasped hands and wrapped legs modulate into a series of intricate resolutions.


A third dance performed last week, "Fractions," luxuriates in interaction of weight and air in a velvet-soft ballon. A girl in pale green dips and winds through a solo of airy spirals, one leg curling repeatedly knee-first across her body, bobbing down and swinging out; dancers flicker through space in springboard leaps and swallow swoops; a man and a woman move in an effortless duet, their legs and arms unfurling like a sea-plant swayed by the current.

FROM SUCH SLIGHT BEGINNINGS--a weight change, a fleeting gesture--Cunningham builds dances of astonishing variety and imagination. He is one of the few choreographers whose complexity of motion suggests the intricacy of the body's inner processes.

Other dances explore not so much the matter of moving as the matter of constructing movement. "Signals," for example, is a gently humorous spoof on the whole business of making dances. As a couple move, Cunningham approaches them flaunting what appears to be a yardstick, poking and measuring the dancing as though fitting a suit of clothes; at another point a group labors through a sequence of banal repetitions, stopping and starting on a rhythmic "hut!" from Cunningham. And while the program listing outlined the dance's sequence in painstaking detail--the segments solemnly labelled "Trio for 3 or 4," "Sextet for 5 or 6"--onstage it was impossible to tell them apart. A choreographer who has been criticized for eliminating dance's external structure appears to be saying, "Here's a dance full of overt structures--and look how silly it is!"

Even though the real subject of Cunningham's dances is invariably movement itself, his choreography is by no means expressionless. Rather, the plot and emotional tone the audience perceives in the dances derives from the inherent expressiveness of the gestures, not from subject matter or program notes.

Two dances in last week's Boston program suggested particularly strong emotional overtones. In one, "Solo," Cunningham's own dancing captures with eerie accuracy the furtive watchfulness of a hunted animal. From Cunningham's entrance--back swayed, neck stiff, knees bent, arms and hands contorted downwards, the dance is shot through with images of deformity and entrapment. Cunningham hunches down on the floor, all crippled angles, his head and tongue jerking like a lizard's. His hands tremble fitfully, one foot gropes outward in blind patterns, or--suddenly alert in awful stillness--he glances warily offstage. Movements sputter for a moment and die out helplessly; the fear is palpable, paralyzing. At the dance's end, when Cunningham shuffles offstage in the same pose as his entrance, nothing has changed or been resolved. But he is still moving, with the infinite dignity of a creature reconciled to dreadful pain.

The other work, "Rainforest," is equally disturbing: a stage filled with sinister silver helium balloons is the setting for a dance of desperate energy and haunting tenderness. In both these works, Cunningham's artistry provides the dance, allowing meaning and response to awaken spontaneously in each member of the audience.

In the same way, Cunningham's dances go beyond emotional mood to achieve a sense of archetypal form. Familiar gestures are the stuff of much Cunningham choreography, but abstracted onstage from their ordinary context they appear as the organic prototypes of the motions of day-to-day living, acquiring a startling purity the more integral for its understatement. One's encounter with the choreography becomes a series of luminous recognitions; dance stripped of all overt meaning works on the viewer's mind with the power of symbol. And the large structures, wholly intent on unfolding patterns of motion and relation, resonate instead with the authority of ritual action.

THAT IS PERHAPS Cunningham's greatest gift, as the performances last week made clear. His work explores the processes of the body, but its effect also allows the onlooker to explore the processes of the perceiving mind. He gives us the dance: wondrous, self-delighting motion without any prop of plot or theme or explicit significance. And watching the dance, one becomes aware of the mind's response: a subjective discernment of plot and pattern, and the shape of ritual; a perception of the grounds of symbolic recognition in the flowering of unburdened form.

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