Wednesday, October 06, 2004
Tapping into the Zeitgeist
The dice man rolls into town
Radiohead join Merce Cunningham in a game of chance at the Barbican
By Ed Caesar
05 October 2004
A 40-minute "experience" by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Radiohead and the Icelandic band Sigur Ros, Side Splits is entirely predicated on an afternoon roll of the die. This act of chance determines how the performance will unfold each day: with two choices for each of the categories, there are 32 possible combinations of costumes, lighting, choreography, music and decor. Even in rehearsals, the company has yet to cover them all.
"It all starts with movement, of course," says the 85-year-old choreographer Cunningham. "We have to do the roll of the die in the afternoon, so the dancers can rehearse." Just before the performance, the audience are shown a video recording of the die roll on a screen, so the aud-ience can collaborate in the organised chaos they are about to witness. One detects a certain glee in the octogenarian's voice as he details the frenetic activity of a performance day, which comes as no surprise when you learn that he is still personally choreographing after 50 years with his own company.
The Side Splits project, though, was only conceived as a result of the most unlikely of artistic collaborations at its heart: Radiohead were introduced to the dance company, and, intrigued by the possibilities on offer, asked if they could bring in the youngsters of Sigur Ros. "[Sigur Ros] looked like high-school kids," says Cunning- ham, "but the bands got along so well." In fact, it was the bands who decided upon the eventual format for the show: two 20-minute "sets" by each of the bands, played in whatever order the die decreed.
Although there is a certain wilful abandon to Cunningham's neatly constructed wheel of fortune, one senses an artistic imperative lurking behind it. "Things can change, one way or another - that's important. I don't want to explore what I know - working with chance allows you to explore something else. What appears impossible, even if you can't eventually do it, allows you to see something you haven't seen before." Indeed, if one looks at the choreo- grapher's work over the past 20 years, especially the work with the composer John Cage, there has been a conscious effort to eschew narrative and focus on the beauty of the movement. Side Splits, the great man suggests, is a natural development of that work with Cage.
Global audiences, too, have responded positively, with the New York run receiving glowing reviews. "You have to rethink the work every time - I hope it gives the performance a freshness," says Cunningham. And it is not just this project that the company are reworking: Cunningham is also starting a dance project based on an art-video recording. To hear him talk about future projects is to gain an insight into what it means to fully commit one's life to art.
At the Barbican over the next few nights, audiences will view the fruit of that commitment, as well as participating in one of the most innovative dance events of recent years.