Merce Cunningham, Barbican, London

Balls, bleeps and bendy bits
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The Independent Culture

As every life-insurance salesman knows, risk is a young person's gambit. Pity the salesman who tries to sell a policy to Merce Cunningham. At 86, rheumy-eyed and riddled with arthritis, America's elder statesman of modern dance is as much in thrall to the vagaries of chance as when he launched his creative quest half a century ago.

As every life-insurance salesman knows, risk is a young person's gambit. Pity the salesman who tries to sell a policy to Merce Cunningham. At 86, rheumy-eyed and riddled with arthritis, America's elder statesman of modern dance is as much in thrall to the vagaries of chance as when he launched his creative quest half a century ago.

Of the six Cunningham "events" billed over the last few days at the Barbican, none has been predictable and no two have been alike. Not only has each night's décor been by a different visual artist, but the improvised music has been supplied by a changing roster of musicians who hadn't previously met. To cap it all the choreography - a collage of samplings of previous Cunningham works - has been performed in a different order every night. The theory is that, given so many possibilities, some random beauty will emerge, the old monkeys-plus-typewriters equation. Yet there's greater potential for chaos.

The opening night décor was by Cunningham's old friend Richard Hamilton, who in turn paid homage to Marcel Duchamp in a series of radically dull black-and-white projections of household implements - the original ready-mades. Photos were interspersed with bits of scientific text - a treatise on the trajectory of cannonballs, for instance, whose earnestness was faintly comic but whose meticulous concern with the mechanics of things echoes Cunningham's take on the human form.

A musical score of sorts emerged from the pit where John King, DJ Scanner and Radiohead's Phil Selway got to know one other by twiddling knobs and staring into their laptops. The predictable groundwork of electronic burbles and hums soon gained definition with rhythmic riffs, repeated single words, and even something briefly like a tune. But to my mind these excursions into the specific never lasted long enough to make an impact, retreating into the generalised texture like scared rabbits down a burrow.

Now and again, though, some feature would miraculously gel with the activity on stage (which the musicians couldn't possibly see). The repeated word "crickets", an electronic chorus of breep-breeps, and a stage full of beetling bodies behaving like praying mantises. Blink, and it's gone. But the fleeting thrill of these moments of communion seems well worth the wait.

While both backdrop and soundscape could have been bolder, Cunningham's dance imagination is beyond reproach. The 14 dancers have an elfin delicacy as they work through his fastidious enchainements. They're remarkable not only for their amazing ability to balance on the top joint of their bare toes, but for the taut inner rhythms that drive them, however amorphous the music (which of course they're hearing for the first time). It's as if Cunningham has set himself the task of demonstrating to a Martian how forked bipeds are articulated, setting all that messy business of human emotion aside. The result is curiously clean and cleansing, despite its furious intricacy. The difficulty for the spectator is in discussing the experience afterwards. "You know that bit when..." just doesn't do it.

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

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