There is an element of the unknown in any live performance, but a work by Merce Cunningham deliberately hikes up the ratio of chance to certainty. The only thing that can be predicted is that the 84-year-old will come up with something new and striking. Never mind that his latest work, Split Sides, nominally premiered last year in New York (to mark his company's half century, no less). The Split Sides that kicked off London's Dance Umbrella season on Tuesday had never been seen before.
The maths is complex. The piece is a diptych featuring two backdrops, two lighting designs, two sets of costumes and two pieces of music (by Radiohead and Sigur Ros respectively: it was the bands' acceptance of Cunningham's invitation both on the same day that gave him the idea of having two of everything). The choreography is in two sections, and dice are rolled, in view of the audience, to decide which of the alternatives will precede the other in each case. The aim is not just to shrink the probability of ever hitting the same combination twice, but to expose the very essence of randomness. The effect, far from a jarring mishmash, brims with surprising harmonies and an artless-seeming beauty.
On Tuesday (but not Wednesday or Thursday), Catherine Yass's decor - ice-blue daubs resembling glass tower blocks seen through rain - lent a gentle luminosity to the stage where the 14 dancers, dressed in James Hall's batik catsuits, pursued the glorious dance illogic of Cunningham's steps to Radiohead's mantra-like melodies and overlapped samplings. After 20 minutes exactly, the scene dovetailed into a very different look and soundworld: Robert Heishman's jungly monochrome of collapsing metal structures in an aural wonderland of tinkling bells and clackety clockwork, resembling nothing so much as the noise of a fairy toyshop.
The dancers' shadow-print skin suits put me in mind of X-rayed bones, but under other circumstances they might suggest wintry branches or the marbled veins in rock. After the piece's midpoint, I wrestled mentally with alternative impressions. Would that cluster of barefoot balances look so serene if, in place of Sigur Ros's granite blocks of sound, Radiohead's African-inspired climax had been stomping in my ears? Does that young man's solo intrinsically render him a startled faun, or is it the foresty backdrop? One looks and listens with nerves on stalks, in thrall to felicitous connections. Briefly a swarming of bodies runs parallel with microtonal samplings of Thom Yorke's voice and electric guitar, humming like bees. Roughly around the 30th minute, two independent climaxes collide, and it's as if the earth moved.
Cunningham has been obsessed with chance procedures in art for more than 50 years, yet his work keeps coming up fresh. Does this say something about good art, or the nature of chance itself? A quick glance round the Barbican Theatre revealed an age range of 16 to 86 (my sixth-former companion came for the Sigur Ros, but left enthralled by the whole package). Like all the most serious artists, Cunningham is impervious to the vagaries of fashion, yet he cleverly connects with the zeitgeist through his collaborators. And he's not all seriousness, either. Tuesday's companion piece, How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run (1965) had the audience rocking with laughter as the dancers skittered through his take on sports moves to a jumble of comic one-minute monologues (read by Cunningham himself with David Vaughan), some of them fast, some ver-y ver-y slow.
Merce Cunningham tours the UK to 30 October. See www.merce.org for detailsReuse content