From the Tibetan Book of the Dead, trans. Francesca Fremantle and Chogyam Trungpa:
Now when the bardo of dharmata dawns upon me,
I will abandon all thoughts of fear and terror,
I will recognize whatever appears as my projection
and know it to be a vision of the bardo;
now that I have reached this crucial point, I will not fear the peaceful and wrathful ones, my own projections.
When through strong unconscious tendencies I wander in samsara,
in the luminosity of abandoning all fear,
may the Blessed Ones, peaceful and wrathful, go before me,
the wrathful goddesses, Queens of Space, behind me;
help me to cross the bardo’s dangerous pathway and bring me to the perfect buddha state.
When through intense tendencies I wander in samsara,
on the luminous light-path of the innate wisdom,
may vidyadharas and warriors go before me,
their consorts the dakinis behind me;
help me to cross the bardo’s dangerous pathway and bring me to the Pure Realm of Space.
I’d like also to post the 2 things I’ve written about Merce’s work. The first from Dance Insider, 2005, reposted in 2006:
Alienation Among the Aleatory: Adrift in Merce’s ‘Ocean’
By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2005, 2006 Chris Dohse
NEW YORK — Entering the Rose Theater for Merce Cunningham’s “Ocean” on July 14 reminds me of two other cultural phenomena: going to church or going to a museum. In both places people speak in hushed tones, visiting the dead.
The sugarlight pileup at the Time-Warner Center, which houses the Rose, is itself a culture shock, part shopping mall, part gallery, filled with well-dressed, safe pedestrians yo-yoing the floes and eddies of high-end consumerism in silent elevator and escalator banks. Maybe some of them are here for a wedding reception? Black tie seems a bit stiff for a weeknight otherwise.
It’s not the church I would have chosen for this artifact. I hold “Ocean”‘s 1996 New York premiere, outdoors in a specially constructed round of bleachers in Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park, in reverent nostalgia. My strongest memory is of noticing an airplane far away, overhead, circling for a La Guardia landing perhaps, looking like the underbelly of a whale, while the dancers, scaled to the size of plankton, scampered below. The breeze and the deep blue night suited a work that was epic, a masterpiece, and an instant classic.
That doesn’t mean that it has anything to say to the world now. Life, perhaps especially New York life, seems too dire now for 90 minutes of non-interpretive escapist beauty. And this new grandiose framing seems to have sucked the life out of the piece I remember, leaving a clutter of Cunninghamesque husks without essence.
Oh I’m feeling cranky now.
This happens every time I go above 14th Street.
But if this piece asks me to worship it as if it’s a sacred part of some late Modernist canon, then I wanna come away uplifted or edified. This “we’re just doing solos in the same place at the same time … standing next to each other … not associated” dance is no longer an important idea. The construction of any Cunningham piece is intellectually brilliant but the execution of this one feels specifically stale. The dancers seem to be afraid they might flub it, like acolytes carrying their first incense brazier.
I find myself wondering what kinds of images would be coming into my head if the piece was named something else. Cunningham dancers always look like scuttling crabs or preening waterbirds so there’s no clue to the work’s thematic content there. The animal sounds flooding John Cage’s score are just as often from a veldt or forest as they are from the sea. The costumes seem to think the dance they’re in is named ROYGBIV. Their vivid color bites the eye. But Gawd, how uncomfortable those unitards look, especially for the boys!
I know that the dance isn’t meant to signify anything. Even so, I find myself “liking” the traveling steps the most. The isolated body positions and contortions and impossible balances could seem like groveling before some kind of God. The dancers sure don’t seem to be having much fun. Only a few of them bring any breath or ease to their enchainments, or seem to actually be enjoying their performances. The rest look tense. Many of them seem trapped in the compulsory exercises of an Olympics trial. Frankly, this is dull watching. If you remember for a minute that they’re actually people and not simply forms in space, it seems quite funny that they should be leaping about for no reason or pausing in impassive equipoise.
I start to use the clocks set at each corner of the playing space to annotate significant events. At 37:29 the girl with short red hair looks at something more directly than the rest of her herd. How welcome is that moment of humanity in her face! At 42:59 I wonder what, if anything, the dancers are thinking about within these long adagios and held poses. Some of the random groupings seem about as alive as strangers waiting to have a snapshot taken. The silent, digital ticking of seconds creates a flat anxiety.
Cage’s score mesmerizes, threads of melody arising and falling away within a tonal field. Sometimes these act as codicils to the non-meaning, monolithic scatterings of bodies, sometimes they grind in industrial plenitude. The disk of light over the stage suggests a Spielbergian visitation.
The heterocentricity of the duets troubles me, their stratification of gender. I find myself wondering what kind of instruction is given the dancers for their gaze. They don’t acknowledge our presence, which from the intimacy of Row K just feels wrong. But they rarely acknowledge each other either. Or even the fact that they’re being observed. They don’t “invite being seen,” as Deborah Hay urges in her dances. They’re just blank. At one time I found this quite interesting to watch, but tonight it isn’t speaking to me. This says more about where my head is than about the success or failure of Cunningham’s lifelong project and this piece’s place in that trajectory. Ultimately, the energy of what the dancers are doing seems necessary, worth doing but impossible to do, and impossible to appreciate. Is it perhaps after all a lesson in impermanence?
It occurs to me that this review has some qualities in common with its subject. Both go around and around without getting anywhere. In Merce’s case this is a function of his art, one of its timeless contributions to the culture of any age. It’s a damn humbling task to respond to such a thing in the tropes of “criticism.” I return to the metaphors of the first paragraph, church and museum, and their dogmatic endgames, blind faith and mummification. Merce is our deity but I’d rather be a heretic than a zealot any day. Or to put it another way: “Ocean” is dead. Long live Merce.
The second from Dance Insider, 2002:
How to Pass, Kick, Fall, Run, and Celebrate Merce at 50
By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2002 Chris Dohse
NEW YORK — Watching two programs of Merce Cunningham dances takes a lot out of you. For each combination of sound and image, you must engage and constantly renew what Shunryu Suzuki called “beginner’s mind.” It ain’t easy. Because the dances remind you of places or events in your head doesn’t mean that they are about those things. Form is their content. Not to analyze, not to interpret; that is the assignment. But it’s sometimes easy to read narrative into their components, especially when the music is accidentally agreeable and the dancers look right at you. You remember Duchamp’s doctrine, that a work of art is completed in the imagination of its viewer. You remember the Zen idea that nothing is either good or bad, ugly or beautiful; nothing is better than anything else. Still your brain says, “Yeah, but…” In each of the contained worlds of “Merce 50,” seen last week at Lincoln Center, though they are full of accidents and chances and variety and disorder and momentary beauty, nothing is supposed to be anything else; everything is itself.
Certain similarities might be noticed between the group dances that were part of the two New York programs of this 50th anniversary celebration of the Cunningham company: “Pictures” (1984) (Program A) and “Loose Time” (2001) (both programs). In these pieces, a sort of inexorable mystery replaces the “excessively elegant sensuality” Edwin Denby made so much of in his 1944 review of Merce’s first concert of solos. Actions are suspended in epic, noble gravity. Bodies become monoliths. The men are particularly meaty, marble-heavy. Stillness and elastic grand plies look tenacious. Feats of steadfast balance and strength and impossible adagios are performed with equanimity to offer what Merce has called the “possible glimpse of the spirit through the body.” Individuals and groups travel, not to get anywhere but out of curiosity and a sheer appetite for movement.
David Behrman’s vaguely Asian score for “Pictures” layers plucked and bowed stringed instruments over an electronic hum. Aleatory sneezes and coughs, played by the human audience orchestra, are easily included. For “Loose Time,” Christian Wolff seems to have placed half of the orchestra up in one of the tiers or somewhere in the ceiling. The dancers of “Loose Time,” androgynes in fish-scaled unitards, binary automatons always tilting off the spine, often resemble errant mannequins, sexless tadpoles caught in a Technicolor underwater aridity or eddies of geometric psychosis.
“Fabrications” (1987) (Program B) is already there when the curtain rises, a complete visual system that doesn’t need you. The score, by Emanuel Dimas De Melo Pimenta, sounds like the static of a distant radio, or a dentist’s drill, or a faraway calliope and a hissing radiator, which after a silence clarifies into a symphonic chord. Dove Bradshaw has scumbled vague lima beans or testicles on the scrim. Clad in pants and dresses like ordinary people, perhaps at a fancy garden party, the dancers might be caught in a familiar Paul Taylor mise en scene without the bathos. There’s a little waltzing and what might be curtsying. The cast of 15 looks more like a community than in the other works of this retrospective, more frolicsome and more gender-divided. But the male/female couples look grim somehow too, hidebound.
In “Melange” (2001) (both programs), a video dance collaboration between Merce and Charles Atlas, the camera’s eye acts as both participant and audience, darting among semaphored port de bras, quicksilver runs and spatial hijinks, reveling in its complexity of scenario. In an outdoor sequence, clouds are surprising and lovely.
It is a privilege to see history come to life in the recreation of “How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run” (1965) (Program A). Who would have guessed it would be wearing festive pastel jumpers? Here Merce displays his humor and playfulness in movement that is fluid yet pedestrian, while John Cage’s text (read by David Vaughan, in his original role, and Merce in Cage’s part) is full of charming mushroom-gathering stories and contains this crowd pleaser: “In Zen they say: If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it’s not boring at all but very interesting.”
In “Suite for Five” (1956-1958) (Program B) you see the dancers as individuals; you notice even more their imperturbable balance. All are equal citizens of a utopian time/space. Especially when compared to Martha’s histrionics (she made “Seraphic Dialogue” in 1955), this can be read as a Queer ideal — not a sexuality but a worldview, an identity position. Free of the duality of feminine/masculine, nothing is fixed; the dancers are uber-athletes, champions. Intermittent blackouts take on the quality of days passing over a heroic gameboard. Identified only by Rauschenberg’s Crayola unitards, Blue seems to care about Yellow in their duet. Each episode contains plenty of stillness, but the stillness is alert, alive; it is not repose.
My friend Nancy: “I think his work is rich with quite personal and specific meaning for him.”
Suzuki: “Our ‘original mind’ includes everything within itself.”