Portrait of an Artist

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For some, the work of Merce Cunningham is regarded as genius. How else to explain the late contemporary choreographer’s ability, in 1983, to fuse Irish-influenced jigs, duets, and reels with the music of John Cage? The result was “Roaratorio,” and a revival of that unusual piece was performed by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at Walt Disney Concert Hall in early June. This was the last local appearance by the troupe, which is on a two-year worldwide tour and plans to disband at the end of 2011. 

Before his death last year, Cunningham had hoped the program would be staged at Disney Hall. Whether you appreciate his artistic sensibility or not (and some in the audience did not, finding his abstract movements confusing and disjointed), the venue itself provided intrigue. The dancers did not enter or exit the stage. Instead we could watch them add or subtract layers of clothing (leg and arm warmers, T-shirts) as they stood or sat in the dark offstage, waiting for their next cue. Those bright costumes—solid yellows, reds, greens, and turquoise—were more like workout clothes, tied to barstools when not in use. And those barstools were the only props. (No elaborate American Ballet Theatre set designs here.) The spare nature of the scene mimicked the dancers’ sharp, precise kicks and spins. The company at times resembled a contemporary painting—swirls of color and energy left for the viewer to interpret.

As for the music—composed by Cage, who was Cunningham’s life partner, in 1979—it had the best staging possible at Disney Hall. Cage had traveled through Ireland, recording a cacophony of street sounds from places mentioned in James Joyce’s novel Finnegans Wake. A dog barking, a baby crying, water running, a fiddler playing, a clock striking—these sounds merged together to provide a rather grating soundtrack that thundered and echoed throughout the space. Interestingly, the company had not rehearsed to the music (per Cunningham) and simply knew their marks by counting.

During a post-discussion, dancer Jennifer Goggans said Cunningham “had a sense of humor, he told jokes, he had a lot of very funny dances.” We saw that in the whimsical jigs and fancy footwork. Whether you loved it or hated it, the program was Cunningham’s final good-bye to Los Angeles—and after a career that spanned more than 50 years, he must have been having the last laugh.

Photograph by Anna Finke