The Merce Cunningham Dance Company on its globe-trotting Legacy Tour came to Disney Hall for three performances of a revival of Roaratorio, another Cage/Cunningham collaboration which is loosely based on Joyce’s Finnegans Wake . And while Cunningham’s trademark style abounds in the hour-long work it is also unusual for a clever and sometimes humorous reimagining of Irish dance. Cunningham uses this element to create joyful choreography to a musical collage with seemingly limited dance implications. The Roaratorio reconstruction was directed by former MCDC dancers Patricia Lent and Robert Swinston and appears after a twenty five year lapse in the repertory.

Let’s start with the music which seems the finer side of the collaboration. Unfortunately for this performance, the recorded version from a German broadcast used at Disney Hall was severely marred by clumsy amplification throughout . The score consists of a collage of Cage reading brief sections from the novel in the kind of lilting voice popular with 60’s era poets, and recorded fragments of street life and sounds from locations in the novel. Add to that the aleatoric insertion of traditional reels, jigs, hornpipes, airs and songs (which were originally part of the live concert versions) and you get an idea of the complex layering of competitive forces that drive this composition. From where I sat the tunes and voice were often inaudible while the sounds from what could be a busy day on the loading dock at the Guinness brewery were  painfully loud. The music, Roaratorio, an Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake, is from 1979 and the choreography, 1983. When Cage died Cunningham was resistant to the notion of a revival because he felt Cage’s presence in the music was crucial. I can imagine how striking a live version–full of chance musical events–might be. Cage’s score offers us a chaotic, at times peaceful yet often incomprehensible vision of the novel as music.

There is a good fit in Roaratorio’s dancing with the hyper-vertical style of Irish dance and Cunningham’s dry often formulaic and taut approach to movement. We are not looking for emotion here but shapes, patterns, trademark articulations and precision and they are delivered in spades. While the piece has no obvious sections, various groupings emerge and as quickly disappear. The dancers take the stage carrying stools with extra pieces of costumes tied on. After a few individual dancers have warmed up the floor as a kind of introduction a larger ensemble section takes over. Other groupings follow and suddenly you realize you are watching an extended section, a trio of men and a quartet of women dancing, each group in unison but each with its own steps. The piece is punctuated with a frequent return to sections of two by two partnering for the seven couples. Few of these sections developed much interest, some even verged on the trite. In particular, the pony-stepping section looked overly folksy. Later, a terrific section for seven, grouped as three men and four women, began in slow motion with intriguing off center balances. The group, more a phalanx, moves slowly across the floor on the diagonal and then abruptly stops. No time wasted on slick transitions here. Another section in which the fourteen dancers circle the stage doing inside and outside turning jumps may have been Cunningham’s version of the slipping circles found in set dance. And while you could have hoped to see this buoyant movement accompanied by Seamus Ennis and his version of The Boys of Blue Hill –he’s on the recording playing the pipes– we got instead motorcycles and barking dogs. In what was perhaps the most telling commentary on the evening’s  poorly managed music, people seated in the hall opted for tuning out and plugging in on their own ipods and phones.

Roaratorio at Disney Hall
Roaratorio at Disney Hall

Roaratorio concludes without fanfare as the dancers hoist their stools and exit the stage in silence. Cage and Cunningham were persistent in developing a kind of separation in their music and choreography. They valued the independence of creating work in this way, without concern for connection. It’s as if they are asking us to enjoy Roaratorio the dance and Roaratorio the music as independent events that happen to occupy the same stage for an hour. Those eager to see the score and dancing fit together in some observable fashion were regularly disappointed. The original performances were studio presentations and open spaces of Disney Hall gave the dancing some of that kind of informal appeal. The dancers are more or less surrounded by the audience. They sit out sections onstage or beside the organ, toweling off, drinking water and talking. The costuming by Mark Lancaster used basic rehearsal wear–leotards, unitards and shorts– dressed up with mismatched color and lots of green. They were simple and effective. Minimal lighting by Lancaster and Christine Shallenberg made a pleasing luminescent surface out of the grey/white floor. The dancers, all trained by Cunningham put forward a beautifully unified vision of his movement. Light, fleet jumps abounded as did steely balances, precise positions and sharp articulations . They were great. Emma Desjardins in particular was a standout as was Silas Riener in his comedic and manic solo spoofing Irish dance . Robert Swinston covered the Cunningham cameo role.

Tedious talk from the stage (unfortunately not from the dancers) before and at the conclusion of the program detracted from the evening . You know you are in trouble when the lecturing begins and there was no end of it on Friday. This work can stand by itself. But perhaps this part of the concert was a tactical substitute for slight programming. Many seats remained unsold. Now, if it had been entertaining Irish talk, that would have been quite another thing altogether. Where is the Guinness when you really need it?


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