Upon his death in 2009, Merce Cunningham left behind a huge footprint in the contemporary dance world. A stalwart of the American scene with a career spanning over 70 years, he created in excess of 150 original works and facilitated more than 800 improvised events.

Pianist Katherine Tinker and dancer Fiona Brown in Cage in Motion, © Becky Brewis
Pianist Katherine Tinker and dancer Fiona Brown in Cage in Motion,
© Becky Brewis

The debut recital from both Animate Dance and the Harrison Ensemble, and curated by pianist Katherine Tinker, ‘Cage in Motion’ celebrated the life and work of John Cage and the spirit of collaboration over which he presided, particularly with his partner Merce Cunningham. Together, the two of them, both consistent innovators, distilled composition and choreography to their respective essences: sound and movement. The evening proceeded in four parts, beginning with Cage in Motion, a reworking of Cunningham’s 1991 choreography Beach Birds, to Cage’s composition Four3, followed by a visual and musical response to Cage’s A Room. There was then a performance of the 1987 work Two for flute and piano, and two recitals of the ‘infamously difficult’ cello piece Etudes Boreales I.

The titular opening, Cage in Motion, bore an inconsistent adherence to Cunningham’s methods and too little of his innovative spirit to provide justification. There were certainly moments of superficial resemblance: a slow turning head from Beach Birds, and recognisable snippets of Cunningham technique jutting out from the otherwise more flowing movement. It seemed that choreographer Amelia Cardwell had not yet found her voice, slave to Cunningham’s legacy but inadequately so. Of course, you can’t blame her: Cunningham’s authority and experience is not something with which one can easily contend. There was always something slightly off about the piece, the patterns too regular and the coincidences too planned, far from Cage and Cunningham’s ideas of the extreme independence of collaborators and liberation from one’s own preferences. Furthermore, the execution faltered a little too often, the strength and precision normally associated with the Cunningham technique was often lacking in the two male dancers of the three-strong cast. The Harrison Ensemble performed Cage’s piece with skill, the four performers using a number of rainsticks and the violinist holding a long violin note with precision.

Then came A Room, newly arranged for harp, prepared harp and electronics by Louis d'Heudieres, and set to projection by video artist George Ekst. Played fluently on the two harps by Martino Panizza, A Room was tipped to provide an ‘exploration of the relationship between the visual and the sonic’ but was sadly thwarted by that great arch-nemesis of theatre: technical difficulties. Instead of a reflexive animation documenting the construction of an image of the theatre in a different space, the looped sound was backed by an Apple desktop and a darting mouse, presumably at the hands of a very distressed technician.

The third piece was a true gem. Exquisitely beautiful, it exemplified the work of Cunningham and his collaborators. Here was the adherence to his famous chance methods; here too was a superb execution of his technique. The piece was spacious and true to the great choreographer’s work. Each element, music and movement, through use of sustains, stillness and silence, gave room to the other – and each, in its simplicity, revealed itself clearly. Dancer Fiona Brown performed with impeccable virtuosity and the utmost clarity and without unnecessary character, not to be dull but to better present the movement: an idea that lay at the heart of Cunningham’s philosophy. Two was a real pleasure.

The finale, whilst unable to equal the preceding section, was a marked improvement on the first half. The choreography, a duet, seemed more comfortable and familiar to the dancers and had a greater sense of coherence; the moments of typical Cunningham spinal curves and straightened legs seemed at last to have been smoothed into the whole. The music, Cage’s Etudes Boreales I, was composed without tempo markings and so can be performed at any speed. To demonstrate the implications of this, it was played first within four minutes and then again within eight. This was matched by the choreography, which also took twice the time.

The demonstrative and almost educative nature of this piece brought home the truth that this evening was more of a history lesson than anything, looking into the past and celebrating the work of two great artists whose impact remains present even after they are gone – but ultimately, whose relevance is waning. Dance has certainly moved on from Cunningham but must always respect that it was him who enabled it to do so.