The Royal Ballet has added to the centenary celebrations of Merce Cunningham (born April 1919, died July 2009) with a brief programme, curated by director Kevin O’Hare, which ties together chronologically a classic work by that titan of modern dance; another that Cunningham is said to have inspired from The Royal Ballet’s Founder Choreographer, Sir Frederick Ashton; and a new commission from the New York-based choreographer, Pam Tanowitz, that keeps the Cunningham flame aglow.

Nicol Edmonds, Melissa Hamilton and Reece Clarke
© ROH | Bill Cooper

If Cunningham inspired Ashton to make Monotones II, his company’s regular visits to London had no notable impact on The Royal Ballet itself, which until now had never performed his work. Cross Currents was premiered in London, in 1964, with Cunningham as the male dancer continually intersecting along geometrical passageways with two women. On this occasion, Joseph Sissens had the honour of performing Cunningham’s steps, alongside Romany Pajdak and Julia Roscoe.

There are many works by Cunningham that I would clamber over others to see (Pond Way, BIPED for example) but Cross Currents is not one for my A list. It is rather too sparse, Spartan and academic for my liking: austerely performed with eyes-wide-opened military precision in steps and turns that churn incongruously against music that appears to be the cat walking across piano keys. The choreography and isorhythmic music (three player piano studies by the late Mexican-based composer Conlon Nancarrow) were, of course, unrelated, although Nancarrow’s studies were composed and recorded some years prior to Cunningham’s choreography.

Two Cunningham works to the music of Erik Satie – Nocturnes and Septet – were performed in the same London season as Cross Currents, reminding Ashton of the ethereal poetry of the music and reviving his ideas for dance as an abstract amalgam of form and space. Monotones II – first performed at a gala in 1965 – was the outcome (a Monotones I was front-ended a year later to make a longer work).

Francesca Hayward, Matthew Ball and Mayara Magri in Cross Currents
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Other than the abstract, it is hard to see any link between Cunningham and Ashton. The former divorced music and movement; the latter turned them into an everlasting love affair. Monotones II is such a beautiful exposition of pure musicality in subdued neoclassical dance, performed in futuristic unisex unitards, so tight as to leave the performers appearing to be naked, albeit painted in white. The landscape of their musculature is engraved through the fabric with every rib and sinew athletically exposed in this aesthetic of strength and vulnerability.

Two men (David Donnelly and Téo Dubreuil) seem to honour and serve an alien divinity (Gina Storm-Jensen, utterly captivating) in a flow of neoclassical movement that is both sequential and seamless, sublimely interlaced with the form of Satie’s ubiquitous piano music (beautifully performed by Robert Clark). After throwing off a slightly nervous start, the trio danced superbly.

I missed Pam Tanowitz’s Four Quartets, which served as this choreographer’s calling card to London when performed at The Barbican, last May, and it is clear that the plaudits she received back then were no one-off. This ensemble piece for nine dancers is performed to Ted Hearne’s first string quartet, entitled Exposure, which is both inviting and unsettling in roughly equal measure. Ironically, the musical structure seemed better suited to Cross Currents than Nancarrow’s etudes, particularly in the way in which segments of music intersect with one another instead of forming an immersive whole. Hearne seems to lay as much attention onto the bowing techniques as the musical notes, squeezing multiple variances from the instruments.

Beatriz Stix-Brunell and dancers of The Royal Ballet
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Tanowitz’s work has humour and charm with the dancers intimately connected through glances and smiles that pass between them. It is a slice of vintage Americana given a modern twist; a private event, perhaps in a remote location that we are glimpsing from a hideaway. The group comprises four identically-dressed men and five women in flowing, open dresses of different pastel shades. They start and end together, disaggregating into many permutations in between. There are no leaders or followers in this egalitarian gathering and each of the dancers has their moments to shine. They hold classical shapes one moment, are two-dimensional cut-outs the next (like Nijinsky’s patterns from an urn) and then they may joyously roll across the floor. It is an ensemble piece but my eye was continually drawn to the central serenity of Anna Rose O’Sullivan and the effervescence of Fumi Kaneko (the yellow dress helped).

The best one can say about Everyone Keeps Me is that it seemed well-placed alongside two classic works that have survived for more than fifty years: the worst is that the piece was performed over just two nights. Bring it back soon and on the main stage, too. It’s worth it.