Inventive. Surprising. Challenging. Diverse. These are the words that spring to mind in response to this triple-bill ‘homage’ to Merce Cunningham, but they could just as easily be applied to the choreographer himself. Devised by Dance Umbrella and the Royal Ballet, the programme starts with French-Senegalese Amala Dianor’s Somewhere in the Middle of Infinity (2016), and concludes with Cunningham’s classic Sounddance (1975). But in between is something simultaneously old and new – a reimagining of Cunningham’s 1944 dance-play For Four Walls.

Compagnie Amala Dianor in Somewhere in the Middle of Infinity
© Valérie Frossard

Dianor’s 45-minute piece for three male dancers fuses hip-hop, African and contemporary styles into a three-way dialogue that we feel privileged to witness. The stage is bare, the only props being towels, water bottles and an iPad, which serves as a DJ turntable for the dancers. They are dressed in chinos, cotton tops and black socks (no shoes). Their faces are communicative – both with each other, and with the audience when they choose to break that fourth wall. We’re immediately drawn to their differences, but also to what unites them. Dianor is joined by Souleyman Ladji Koné from Burkina Faso, and Pansum Kim from South Korea. As each takes his solo turn, we hear Awir Leon’s dance-electronic music subtly shift, from French ‘singspiel’ to pulsating synthesisers to pentatonic techno. Dianor’s style is lyrical, undulating, occasionally revealing his hip-hop origins, while Koné highlights his breakdance expertise within a soft, poetic framework. Kim is more balletic, lifting his leg to his ear, but also indulging in some dad dancing. Humour and warmth suffuse the piece; there’s silent banter between them, but there are powerful moments of synchronisation, too: Koné in headstand, his fellow dancers ‘growing out’ from behind him like branches of a tree; a snaking conga line, hands cupped on shoulders; the vertical jumps in unison, so energetic they make the stage shake. It’s only in the final, slow-motion floor sequence that we fully understand the warfare connotations. But the overall message of unity over separation is never in doubt.

Ballet de Lorraine in Sounddance
© Laurent Philippe

Cunningham created Sounddance, to David Tudor’s charged, electronically generated soundtrack, as an antidote to working with the Paris Opera Ballet, replacing classical rigidity with fast, frenetic movement focused on complex foot and torso movements. The ten Ballet de Lorraine dancers, wearing duck-egg blue tights and billowy, peach-coloured shirts, handle the demands admirably, swiftly entering and exiting the stage via an opening in mustard-yellow drapes. The choreography never lets up, our attention driven from one part of the stage to another, all the groupings equally engaging. Tudor’s incessant whooshing, whirling, clanging, clicking soundscape is performed live by Etienne Caillet but the dancers pay little attention to it (indeed, without a clear musical pulse, synchronicity is occasionally compromised). The physical demands on the dancers are immense, but they barely let on.

Ballet de Lorraine in For Four Walls
© Laurent Philippe

For Four Walls is a reinterpretation of Cunningham’s one-act play on American family life by Petter Jacobsson and Thomas Caley (both of whom worked with Cunningham). After its first and only performance in 1944, the piece was lost; John Cage’s music was rediscovered and provides the focal point for Ballet de Lorraine’s groundbreaking performance. Pianist Vanessa Wagner – poised, serene, brilliant – is spotlit on the stage, flanked by perpendicular mirrored walls. The effect is marvellously discombobulating – we see everyone reflected multiple times. There are ten dancers to start, limbering up like students preparing for class. They are dressed in an assortment of belted grey shorts with knee-high socks or worn over leggings, paired with casual, gym vests; the effect is weirdly chic.

The choreography channels Cunningham in that it seems improvisatory but clearly isn’t. As more dancers (23 in total) flood the stage, we see different choreographic ideas take hold, seemingly coming from nowhere and characteristic of an individual dancer, but soon spreading outwards and catching fire. In another nod to Cunningham, we see both the independence and interdependence of music and movement, as well as the inherent musicality of movement itself during the silences between Cage’s surprisingly diatonic, psychologically intense interludes. But on another level, the choreography takes off in an entirely new, bold direction. As the drama builds, interactions between dancers – previously dancing alone – begin: legs and wrists are grabbed and, in one exhilarating section, dancers toss each other into the air with wild abandon (remember Bausch’s Rite of Spring?). These acrobatics require the same precision and accuracy as those in Sounddance, yet the effect is looser, freer, less controlled. Near the end of this 40-minute piece, the pianist walks purposely across the now-empty stage to the wings, where there begins singing – yes singing! – from the dancers huddled there. It’s a simple melody, sung in in French, in octaves, and clearly derived from Cage’s music – and it continues as the dancers re-enter the stage. The mirrors fragment and slide away, the music resumes, and a solitary figure – Cunningham? – remains, gazing towards the pianist as the final notes die away, immortalising the profound connection between the choreographer and his lifelong companion.