At first glance, the Merce Cunningham performance Tuesday night at the Lied Center had all the elements of what could have been an inclusive art experience, an evening of dance with a little something for everyone. The program boasted music by British rock gods Radiohead and the experimental rock group Sigur RÃ³s, a factor that promised a good turn-out from the indie rock crowd, particularly husbands and boyfriends who are normally reluctant to attend dance performances.
There was also the allure of enough probability to entertain math lovers for hours: Before "Split Sides," the company's latest work that includes two 20-minute segments, a die is thrown several times to determine various aspects of the performance: the order of music played, the lighting, the costumes, etc. There are apparently 32 possible combinations.
Sadly, such a diverse mix yielded a confusing dance performance that was erratic, boring and often inaccessible due to its sheer randomness. It's true that modern dance has a certain organic quality; dancers often move independently of each other's rhythms and motions in creative ways. However, when they purposefully come together as a group in prominent instances, they should deliver a precise synergy that creates a compelling contrast to the more eclectic moments. The dancers of Merce Cunningham all too frequently failed to achieve this visual togetherness; it seemed there were always a few people who were stumbling, slightly off from everyone else during key moments in the choreography.
While the choreography itself had a few instances of beauty and innovation, it often felt rather generic and pointless. There are only so many times the audience can watch a group of people with their arms in the same assortment of stiff, angular positions and necks jerked downward, or running fretfully across the stage.
Thankfully, the evening included a few saving graces. During the second half of "Split Sides," the dancers looked wonderful and really took flight - in one particular trio, two men suddenly caught a woman's body in a beautifully formed diagonal lift that looked and felt like a bolt of lightening. Cunningham's use of building tension between fast and slow motion with one dancer catching and holding another also proved a powerful way to create a heightened sense of anxiety and delayed, captured energy.
The costumes featuring splattered patterns reminiscent of the painter Jackson Pollock were also quite captivating, particularly under a changing series of lights that evoked the feeling of time passing between night and day. Catherine Yass' otherworldly glacier-like imagery made a stunning background. And Sigur RÃ³s' musical composition was lovely, with sounds of a music box and the quiet murmurs of other instruments tumbling together.
I applaud Cunningham's efforts to reach out to all facets of the arts through creative collaboration, and respect his legacy as a masterful choreographer who challenges audiences with provocative material. Unfortunately, the provocative material on Tuesday night tested the limits of how far imagination and variety can go before a person is psychologically exhausted.