Almost everything about Event will be different at the next performance. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company is at the Barbican for a week, and steps, design and music will change nightly. So will Cunningham's collaborators, including musicians from Led Zeppelin and Radiohead, and major artists. Who but Cunningham would bring these people together?
Cunningham, at 86 the greatest living choreographer, famously separates the elements of his dances - music and steps come together on the first night. His Events were developed for unconventional spaces: Grand Central Station, Piazza San Marco, Tate Modern. New performances are stitched together from existing works, with new designs and music. Cunningham's dances shine through it all, classical, idiosyncratic.
This first Event featured Philip Selway of Radiohead, composer John King and sound artist Scanner. Their music scrabbles, breaks into distorted speech, scratches, hums. The artist Richard Hamilton's backdrop was a series of photographs, comments on Duchamp and instructions for firing cannon - sometimes handsome, sometimes distracting. James Hall's costumes, body-tights in a trying shade of purple, were a mistake.
The dancing is magnificent - the dancers move with extraordinary clarity - legs sweep boldly out, torsos tilt and flow, springy footwork is cut like crystal. At first, soloists are strangely isolated. They rush, spin, jump, zigzagging across the stage, as distant from each other as people in a crowd.
Cunningham dances can be powerfully dramatic. Holley Farmer looks up and out, a sweeping gaze in a single turn of her head. The movement is projected with such force, it looks fated: events unfold under her eyes. In a duet, Jonah Bokaer holds her away from him, her body taut but swaying, like the figurehead of a ship.
After a cool opening, there's a change of pace. Four dancers skip through a 21st-century country dance, and the cast sit down in two lines, jumping up to dance solos or duets. At a tap on the shoulder, they change places, sometimes in mid-dance. Finally, dancers in a crowd duck and weave through their overlapping patterns. This time, they're in it together. Bags are thrown, caught, jumped over, dealt with mid-step. The speed and fluency looks like sleight of hand: however did they get from here to there? Cunningham can go from isolation to jokes without even changing gears.
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