The First Lieutenant’s Victory

by Leigh Witchel

The best thing about Compagnie CNDC-Anger’s return visit to The Joyce was that it broke the filing cabinet of dryly theoretical stereotypes about Merce Cunningham’s work and left the hinges swinging. Artistic Director Robert Swinston was Cunningham’s assistant for going on two decades. The three dances Swinston presented were thoughtfully programmed and balanced, giving the broadest picture possible – both of Cunningham, and Swinston himself.

From 1983, “Inlets 2” showed Cunningham at his most academic, but also pastoral. Three musicians played Cage’s score using huge liquid-filled shells. They made watery glooping sounds as two men did neat tendus and leans. With the quiet score and simple costumes – leotards and tights in solid colors – the steps were at center stage.

One woman did an exaggerated walk bending her knee; the others moved singly or in a group, starting into motion as if by spontaneous combustion. The entire cast returned, as they often do in Cunningham, to end the piece, jumping through retiré into arabesque while rotating off the stage.

“Inlets 2” was a ballet master’s staging: punctilious and airtight. The company had a clean look: if the dancers’ bodies were different in size and shape, they were all toned and youthful. The execution spoke of French training: watching Lucas Viallefond do precise, isolated tilts you could guess he trained at the national conservatory in Paris.

But the relationship to academic dance training wasn’t just in the dancers. Cunningham’s intersections with Balanchine are documented – he studied and taught at the School of American Ballet – but “Inlets 2” showed Cunningham’s relation to Ashton, or more accurately, his relation to mid-century ballet training. Created before Cunningham used the computer program Lifeforms to push his vocabulary to more extreme places, the tilts in “Inlets 2” looked like a repurposing of ballet épaulement. A real “Ashton bend” is not that far from a Cunningham tilt. And the dancers turned looking straight upwards in a way similar to Brian Shaw in “Symphonic Variations.”

“Place,” a reconstruction of a 1966 work not seen since 1971, was the treasure of the evening. Dark, calm and as opaque in its intent as “Inlets 2” was straightforward, “Place” was luminously weird.

It took place on a stripped stage. Beverly Emmons contributed a set of objects strewn on the back wall: wood pallets and newspaper as if it had been blown and stuck there. On the ground were some mysterious polyhedrons straight out of “Star Trek.”

Gianni Joseph stood alone and reached to pick up the heel of his foot. In a simple brown shirt and tights, with a small, slicked-back manbun, he didn’t have the clean, schooled look of the others, and when he went on relevé behind one of the women he didn’t have that same well-bred facility. No big deal. What he had was a dark magnetism that the choreography needed.

The others joined him and hustled about in clipped steps. Over their tights, the women wore transparent plastic mini-dresses: a wonderful reminder of period.

In his darker works, Cunningham populated the choreography with activity like a coven in an ant farm: busy yet sinister. The dancers quickly exchanged places in a circle, or they brought their arms high to the sides and rapidly tapped their shoulders.

Duets passed like apparitions. One man brought in a woman in draped upside down across his front. Letting her down, he did a back bridge at center, she lay on her back on top wrapped round him to create a strange, vulnerable coupling.

Joseph stood still while Anna Chirescu slowly made a circle in front of him. When she left, he walked backwards looking straight upwards towards the flies. He headed to the polyhedrons in the back, and it turned out they were lamps. He set one aglow, then brought them all across the back of the stage and lit the others while the rest of the group danced.

The ending was the oddest of all. The dancers exited in pairs, leaving Joseph alone again. He walked to the back and from nowhere produced a transparent trash bag. Putting his legs into it, he thrashed and rolled as the curtain fell in a moment of quiet, threatening desperation like Jim Jones in a junkyard.

Adrien Mornet and Anna Chirescu in “How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run.” Photo by Charlotte Audureau. ©CNDC – Angers

The evening closed brightly with 1965’s “How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run” as its lighthearted closer. Gene Caprioglio and Laura Kuhn read from Cage’s essays: terse and funny anecdotes about his life or Cunningham’s that were also parables: the funniest was about Cunningham’s mother, who, when caught for speeding could not produce either her license or registration. “Well, what are we going to do with you?” The police officer asked. In response, she drove away.

It’s usually easy to tell Cunningham’s part in his dances; it’s the one set off from the others. Here, Viallefond wore a polo shirt while the others were in simpler, collarless athletic wear. Everyone did sporty things; small bounces in place as if warming up or jumps splitting the legs to the side like cheerleaders. The curtain descended slowly even as Caprioglio and Kuhn were telling a story.

Swinston’s astute mix and transparent staging showed off Cunningham’s work, but also Swinston. He’s a sharp first lieutenant who knows the rules cold. But the eternal danger for most first lieutenants is following the rules too closely, and the hermetic technique of “Inlets 2” made it seem that Swinston had fallen into that trap. But “Place” had room for the strange and secret weapon of generals: The Great Exception.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“Inlets 2,” “Place,” “How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run” – Compagnie CNDC-Angers
The Joyce Theater, New York, NY
April 4, 2017

Cover: Claire Seigle-Goujon with Gianni Joseph, Anna Chirescu and Lucas Viallefond in “Place.” Photo by Charlotte Audureau. ©CNDC – Angers

Compagnie CNDC-Angers’ season runs through April 9

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