Cage and Cunningham at the Baryshnikov Arts Center
It is 100 years since the composer John Cage was born, 20 since he died, and 70 since he began an enduring relationship, both artistic and personal, with the dancer-choreographer Merce Cunningham. In the years following Cage’s death, Cunningham (who died in 2009) made two new pieces that were accompanied by Cage music; he also made a few whose choreography suggested, with characteristic ambiguity, aspects of death, transcendence, different realms of existence.
This week the Baryshnikov Arts Center has presented a series of performances dedicated to Cage and Cunningham that is in every sense historic. “Four Walls/Doubletoss Interludes” offers the Russian pianist Alexei Lubimov, who long ago introduced a number of Cage compositions to Russian audiences; he plays Cage’s 55-minute score for “Four Walls” (1944). This work was an experimental dance-drama for which Cunningham, then 25 and still dancing with Martha Graham, not only made the choreography (largely now lost) but also wrote an extensive text. The music is now accompanied by the 1993 choreography of “Doubletoss,” the first completely new work that Cunningham made after Cage’s death. It’s been restaged by Robert Swinston, without its original score by Takehisa Kosugi, “Transfigurations.”
What’s particularly historic about Mr. Swinston’s staging, for which “Interludes” is added to the title, is that it isn’t a straightforward act of reconstruction. Following the occasional practice of Cunningham himself when reviving dances, it redistributes the “Doubletoss” choreography among a different number of dancers and for a different duration. More audacious yet, it also includes dance material from Cunningham’s notes that was never performed in the original.
Valuably, it employs eight dancers from Cunningham’s company, which closed at the end of 2011. Though there are passages where they don’t move with specific stylistic motivation — which was also true of some revivals in Cunningham’s lifetime — there’s no doubt that they bring to every movement and every phrase a texture that comes out of long training. Just the firm planting of a bare foot on the floor, seemingly as rooted as a tree, brings back a lost world of Cunningham memories. “Doubletoss” may just be a dance that Cunningham needed to make at the time (it didn’t remain long in the repertory), but he worked with these dancers for years.
The Cage “Four Walls” music is sparse and lucid, seemingly built of short phrases and reiterations, often tracing single-note phrases in the right hand that are like fragments of melody. It proceeds very interestingly: at first it sounds as if it were composed within the style of some of Debussy’s “Études,” but over its course it moves into more aggressive dynamics and harmonies.
Mr. Lubimov plays it with complete objectivity. At one point, he and the dancers stop while a soprano, Joélle Harvey, in an upper balcony, sings a series of long cantilena lines very beautifully, though only some words can be distinguished. It coexists with the Cunningham “Doubletoss” choreography perfectly well; it does not heighten its experience.
Cunningham first suggested in choreography the idea of two or more types of existence long before Cage’s death. But when “Doubletoss” was new, the two planes of its drama were unusually unambiguous.
There are two types of costumes (one close to street clothes, the other spectral, with a black loose netted layer over off-white body tights); two onstage zones separated by a scrim; and often two types of choreography. In a review in The New York Times, Jack Anderson was reminded of the mortals and spirits of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; Deborah Jowitt, writing in The Village Voice, felt that it was about the dead and the living, often close together.
It’s not hard today to apply these interpretations to the current revival. Cunningham’s own immediate sense of loss is also a constant subtext, but so is the idea that the dead accompany and inspire us. In “Doubletoss” the living characters are the more earthbound, often kneeling or lying. The otherworldly characters — as in “Giselle,” a ballet Cunningham knew well, and several other classically Romantic ballets of the 19th century — have the larger, more upright and dancier vocabulary.
Cunningham, however, keeps spinning subversive variations on this idea. In one episode he employs a remarkable amount of same-sex partnering; those who do the partnering are the otherworldly characters. Though you can read this as a meditation on the reunion of gay lovers with their dead partners, its immediate meaning for me is that all of us have our doppelgängers who are, as in Philip Pullman’s novel “The Amber Spyglass,” our deaths.
And “Doubletoss” keeps recycling its dancers through different roles: someone who was playing a dead character soon comes back as a living one, and vice versa. You could view this as a rapid succession of multiple lives and deaths; I think it’s more about Cunningham not wanting us to slap labels on his characters.
Around halfway through, this revival does feel like what it is: a 30-minute dance protracted to fill 55 minutes, a composition for 14 dancers here reworked for 8. In a way I don’t associate with Cunningham, the drama seems to get stuck in a rut.
That feeling, however, passes; the “Doubletoss” energy progresses. The mortal characters become less earthbound; the spectral characters have their own scenes of stasis and grimness. The eight dancers perform as if picking up where they left off. (Daniel Squire returns to Cunningham after his 2009 departure; the other seven were all members of the final Cunningham troupe last year.) Several, notably Brandon Collwes (who has the opening solo, which establishes the work’s serious and poetic tone), seem to have learned further lessons about focus and stage presence. The alert Daniel Madoff injects several changes of direction with marvelously marcato strokes.
This is an important staging, a brave experiment admirably conducted; I look forward to seeing it further and hearing the discussions it should prompt. Perhaps not only for those of us who never saw the original, this “Doubletoss” is a reminder of how much more there was to Cunningham than even his most devoted followers knew in his lifetime.