Seeing Double

What do we see when we watch a dance? And how much of it do we actually retain?


Allen Robertson

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Questions like this bedevil artists in all fields. Listen to the works of many composers and you will often hear them recycling big chunks of material. In the days before we had access to recordings this was a ‘safe bet’. Few members of any given audience would be likely to say that they had already heard that particular melody years before in a different context.

Recycling, altering, amending — in one sense this is the definition of an artist’s individual style. Look at Monet’s waterlilies or Mattise’s odalisques. However, some choreographers have pushed this notion to a kind of ultimate.

With his Events, Merce Cunningham has turned recycling into a way of life. Each of these performances is comprised of a different mix-and-match assemblage of excerpts from his past dances, but now performed as a single 90-minute entity without an interval and with a one-off musical accompaniment that is unconnected to the original sources of the choreography. The steps may look different, but that is an optical illusion brought about by the circumstances surrounding and supporting those steps.

The first Event took place in a museum in Vienna, 24 June 1964. Cunningham came up with the idea as a practical necessity: there wasn’t a conventional stage with wings, just a platform that had been put up in one of the galleries, so the previously choreographed entrances and exits of the works then in his repertory were not possible.

The outcome proved to be such a success that he decided to continue them. Over the past four decades, hundreds of Cunningham’s Events have proved to be an endlessly fertile open field, rewarding and challenging to audiences and dancers alike. Some fans even prefer their unpredictability and unique qualities to conventional repertory performances.

The American choreographer Senta Driver (who had danced with Paul Taylor’s company, 1967-73) created a piece in 1980 called Reaches. Her company, which was named Harry, performed it in a studio space with the audience seated in an L shaped configuration on two adjacent sides of the dancing. One view was wide but quite shallow, the other was narrow but had extreme depth.

Driver’s suggestion was that everyone who saw a performance should return another evening and sit on the other side of the space. Her intention was to find out if viewers would discover something new about the choreography by watching it from another angle and, if so, what response this ‘same only different’ experience could produce.

British choreographer Richard Alston once told me that he was tempted to stage one of his old dances in different designs and with a new score just to see whether anyone in the audience would actually pick up on his deliberate choreographic retread.

'Fine dancing, I believe like virtue, must be its own reward. Those who are standing by are usually thinking of something very different.'