In the 1940s, John Cage and Merce Cunningham were young artists at the start of a collaboration that would radically alter and expand ideas of music and dance and how they might go together. The music part of these early collaborations survives, in the form of scores, while most of the choreography does not, as is often the case with dance before the age of video.
“Unavailable Memory: In Conversation with Cunningham & Cage,” which had its debut at the Baryshnikov Arts Center on Thursday, takes that imbalance as an opportunity. The music is drawn mostly from 1940s piano pieces by Cage (played by the excellent Adam Tendler), including one called “The Unavailable Memory Of,” that accompanied ’40s dances by Cunningham. That the memory of most of the choreography is unavailable offers an opening for present-day dancers and choreographers to pick up the conversation.
The program, a production of the Merce Cunningham Trust and the center, begins, sensibly, with the only piece for which Cunningham’s choreography is still known: “Totem Ancestor.” As Cage’s score for prepared piano suggests a rhythmically complex train ride, a solo dancer (Mac Twining in the Cunningham role) advances and retreats along a diagonal, building from slow-twisting, semi-hieratic poses to bouncing off the knees. Twining attacks it all with eager clarity.
Then things get more complicated. In 1971, Cunningham created “Loops,” a series of tasks for a soloist. For this program, Patricia Lent has rearranged the material for three adept dancers: Justin Lynch, Chaery Moon and the veteran choreographer Molissa Fenley. The original music was not by Cage but by Gordon Mumma; here, John King plays electronically with Mumma’s ideas of heartbeats and breath and Lent’s idea of tripling.
Even in reshuffled fragments, “Loops” retains some of the feel of mature Cunningham. Fenley begins sitting on a folding chair with one of her feet raised off the ground, a pose at once relaxed and tightly held. The other dancers, seldom interacting, balance more elaborately or simply pace. Later, clapping and slapping their bodies, they could be said to resemble unflappable creatures in a buggy environment. But the images and humor aren’t representational; the dance logic isn’t linear.
What, though, about the program’s central concept, picking up the conversation? Does “Loops” have anything to do with that? It does, because Lent has looped “Loops” around the solos of three Juilliard students — Lindsay Phillips, Griffin Massey and Matthew Johnson — who perform their own choreography to the Cage pieces missing Cunningham’s contributions.
It’s a sweet idea. These students are around the age that Cunningham was when he created those now-lost works. But if they are supposed to be in conversation with Cage and Cunningham, they are communicating with the dead in languages that are close to mutually incomprehensible.
For the solo she has titled “Caged Thoughts,” Phillips wraps and unwraps herself in impassioned anguish. In “To Be Done When Leaving,” Massey keeps looking into a high corner and extending and retracting his long limbs, as if gathering and pushing away some invisible presence (like an unavailable memory?). In “What Will Be, Was,” Johnson acts traumatized, as though the music were whipping and electrocuting him. He finishes in a crucifix pose, running in place.
These solos could all be successful audition pieces for a contemporary company. Aesthetically, though, they are collections of the representational emoting that Cage and Cunningham rejected. Is this what the students hear when Tendler slams his forearms on the keyboard or fiddles under the lid of the piano like a mechanic under a car’s hood? The Cage piece for Johnson’s solo is called “In the Name of the Holocaust,” but Cage was alluding to a James Joyce pun, surely not the term not yet used in 1942 for the murder of Jews.
And didn’t anyone explain to the students the core Cage-Cunningham concept: the independence of music and dance? The return of “Loops” after each of these student solos might have been a lovely structure, the old embracing the young. Instead, it’s more like “and now we return to our usual programming” after a jarring, totally disconnected intrusion. On Thursday, when the chair-sitting in one of the later sections of “Loops” inadvertently took on emotional coloring from King’s layered heartbeats and breath, it felt to me as if Cage and Cunningham were schooling the students from the grave.
Good, then, that there is one final conversation on the bill. In “Tether,” Bebe Miller, Darrell Jones and Angie Hauser improvise while Tendler plays “Dream,” a more nocturne-like piece than you might imagine for a Cage work, and occasionally turns the dial on a radio (which on Thursday produced some Taylor Dane and Led Zeppelin).
Total improvisation is also antithetical to Cunningham’s practice, but these are expert improvisers, and in their gentle, speechlike interactions they keep discovering novel and fugitive beauty. Miller’s voice periodically issues the dance-teacher instructions “now” and “rest,” but these cues seem to have an indeterminate relation to the action. In a conversation with Cage and Cunningham, that makes sense.
Through Saturday at Baryshnikov Arts Center; bacynyc.org.