Dance to your own iTunes

With the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s customizable choreography, no one performance is the same

A scene from <i>Split Sides</i>, a dance set to music by Radiohead and Sigur Rós.

A scene from Split Sides, a dance set to music by Radiohead and Sigur Rós.

A stroll through UC Davis—and any other campus today for that matter—greets you with a visual chorus of white strings sprouting like upside-down antennae from many a student’s ears. They are the telltale headphones of this generation’s most prized possession: the iPod. And they add up to an interesting phenomenon. Frankie Folkster watches the world go by to a beat scrubbed out in washboards or plucked in banjo strings. Kellie Kegstand sees the truth, man, the raw reality of campus life, through the glittering lyrics of Kanye West. Bobby Broods-a-lot watches the world slink by in slow motion, saturated with the melancholy shades of Bright Eyes. Everyone watches the same thing. But through music, everyone sees it differently.

That’s the premise of eyeSpace, the fourth and final Merce Cunningham Dance Company performance at the Mondavi Center this weekend. For this, the company asks audience members to bring their iPods into the auditorium—or to borrow some; loaners will be available for those few lost souls who somehow have yet to convert to iPod ownership. Prior to the show, ticket buyers will have the option to download the eyeSpace score by Mikel Rouse—music that John Rockwell in The New York Times called “rock and folk-rockish vocals with electronic instrumentals and an urban soundscape”—to play on their iPods during the performance. But it’s not enforced. Audience members can listen to whatever they want. They don’t even have to use an iPod at all. Rouse’s score will also be performed live during the show. Huh?

“The dance has nothing to do with the music,” says Robert Swinston, assistant to the legendary choreographer. “They’re created separately in separate places. They exist in the same time and last the same amount of time.” That may sound like deliberate disconnection. On the contrary: “It’s a collaboration in that sense of the word,” Swinston says, “that things exist in the same time and space. It’s for the audience’s pleasure, of course.”

Modern dance and technology mix at random in <i>eyeSpace</i>.

Some might go in feeling skeptical, remembering having met the motions and strained breaths and awkward bodysuits of contemporary dance once or twice before, with a resounding “I don’t get it.” And to fresh eyes, this organic, only-half-planned interaction might seem esoteric or downright weird to watch. But as Swinston puts it, “Hopefully people can keep their minds open and their expectations to a minimum, and let the experiences wash over them.”

The company’s goal, after all, is not to step beyond the bounds of understanding—and certainly not to compel a single, specific kind of interaction with the art form. “We’re not intending for it to be anything other than what it is: a dance,” Swinston says. “That’s how we work.”

That, and by staying open to experimentation—not just with popular music and music technology, but also with one of the most mysterious and essential elements of life: pure chance. It doesn’t matter if everyone in the crowd is young and unfamiliar with dance and tuned in only to his or her own world. At 89 years of age, Cunningham, arguably the best American choreographer alive today, can find a way to relate.

The MCDC set up its UC Davis residency last Sunday, a week’s worth of classes (for children and for students of UC Davis, CSUS and area high schools), special events and performances that have been in the planning stages for more than two years.

At 89 years of age, Merce Cunningham relates to the iPod generation.

The residency culminates with this weekend’s performances. On Friday, Mondavi darlings the Kronos Quartet will play the score for MCDC’s MinEvent. Immediately following, and as part of the same program, MCDC will perform Split Sides, a modern dance accompanied by the music of Radiohead and Sigur Rós (both of whom performed live at the first Split Sides performance in Brooklyn in 2003). The order in which the music, dance, décor and lighting are presented is left up to chance (and there are 32 possible combinations for these elements, determined on stage mere moments before the performance begins). Whatever way the coin drops, pairing Radiohead and Sigur Rós with modern dance is an ideal, accessible combination for a college crowd. And as with a shy smile from across the room at a concert, immortalized for all time by the song playing in the background, there might just be a moment in Mondavi where, listening to definitive popular musicians who made the past decade memorable, the first-timer in the audience thinks, I get it.

Saturday follows with Biped, a dance in which pure movement is illuminated through the performers’ metallic, light-reflecting costumes. It’s like a soft, beautiful, human interpretation of a laser show—sans Pink Floyd. Then comes eyeSpace, the aforementioned iPod show, originally co-commissioned by the Mondavi Center. Cloaked in electric-blue bodysuits, the dancers twist, gyrate and balance their bodies in ways that mimic the shards of color and light sprinkled against the red backdrop. The Village Voice likened it to nature, to “animals approaching a watering hole” while others move “as a herd.”

Strapping headphones on an entire audience might sound cheesy, evoking those old black-and-white photos of a theater crowd uniformly sporting thick paper glasses to watch a 3-D film for the first time. But Cunningham’s lifetime study of the human form may be just the thing to take the iPod concept from cheesy to elegant.

His credentials? An unquestionably distinguished career, which began with five years as a soloist in the company of renowned 1930’s choreographer Martha Graham. Like Cunningham, Graham was famous for her rejection of tradition. Her signature movements illustrated the intensity of the torso’s contraction and release through breath. Graham went on to employ narrative structures and literary traditions, telling stories through movement.

A scene from <i>Split Sides</i>.

After he started his own dance company in 1953, though, Cunningham rejected storytelling. The MCDC is known instead for a standard that many modern visual artists now employ: guiding people toward their own experience. Cunningham and his life partner John Cage articulated something obvious yet previously unstated: that music and dance are ultimately independent of one another, merely existing in the same time and space. That chance plays a key role in life, so why not make an onstage gamble of it? That human movement is an experience. That the subject of a dance is the dance itself.

But doesn’t a lack of direct control over what happens on stage create chaos? In the case of eyeSpace, does leaving the music selection up to audience members mean that the quality of experience will vary—and in some cases, seriously disappoint?

“That was my concern, that because there was such a randomness to the experience, the quality would be potentially better or worse for a given person,” remembers Mondavi Center programming director Jeremy Ganter, who caught an eyeSpace performance years ago in Miami. “But the magic of Merce is that the experience is greater than the sum of its parts. Somehow, they manage to pull this off in amazing ways. … If everything is at extremely high quality, then what you get is something of extremely high quality.”

In The New York Times, on the other hand, John Rockwell recalled that “one’s attention was sometimes distracted by the novelty of Mr. Rouse’s presentation of his music and by the audience fumbling with the iPods, most of which were on loan from the lobby.”

Of course, these are two unique individuals, experiencing two different performances of a dance that always was intended as a different show for everyone who sees it. You could ask two or 20 more what they’ve heard of it, and “different things” will always be the right answer.