One of the most famous mainstays of the collaborations between Merce Cunningham and John Cage was their declaration that a dance piece and its music needn’t, or shouldn’t, be intentionally coordinated. Dancers would sometimes not hear the music of a final piece until the night of the first performance. The subsequent artistic collusion between choreography and composition was fresh, sudden, immediate, and unplanned.
Julie Cunningham (no relation) did, in fact, dance for Merce Cunningham’s company (because sometimes life hands you narratively satisfying surnames), and subsequently danced for Michael Clark Company. Their distinct movement languages run like an insistent murmur through her work – at this early stage in her career, perhaps a little louder than is strictly pleasing, although there is a distinct, trembling delicacy that is particular to this double bill (particularly the first half).
But, louder even than her influences, thundering over Cunningham (J.)’s choreography is the distinct voices of her soundtrack: Björk and Antony and the Johnsons in Returning, the first half of the double bill, and poet and spoken word artist Kate Tempest in To Be Me, the second. With Cunningham (M.) already evoked by the phrasing, it’s impossible not to start pondering the extent to which Cunningham (J.) has been influenced by his approach to soundtrack.
In To Be Me, Kate Tempest’s poetry overshadows the work on stage. Using text and spoken word in dance-theatre can be useful and sometimes beautiful, as long it is being parsed or represented or interrogated by the choreography, or meshes with a narrative. But To Be Me is lost under Tempest’s verses. The duo of identically dressed Cunningham and dancer Alexander Williams, mirroring one another, are split, pushed and made subordinate to the confident, aggressive duo of Hannah Burfield and Harry Alexander; there is a provocative and quietly passionate statement to be made about the limits, and even violences, of the gender binary in the formations that Cunningham uses, but it is lost to a sense that the movement is merely embellishing the poetry.
Returning fares better, despite a soundtrack which includes ‘Future Feminism’ by Antony and the Johnsons, an extended anecdote from the live album Cut the World that humorously and intelligently explores sexuality, gender and the transgender movement, sensuality, mysticism and the moon. The four performers, in shiny leggings and tight mesh-and-spandex tops with sweetheart necklines, move with stoic surety, sharp signalling and tight patterning. The long-limbed gesticulations and crisp footwork have a ritualistic aura of temple dances, though some of the unison movement, especially with such deadpan faces, does recall the flamingo mating dance from Planet Earth.
Michael Clark’s influence is very clear in Returning, and not just because Clark’s collaborator Stevie Stewart designed the costumes. I once tried to describe Clark’s work as ‘anarcho-punk ballet’ and have lived to regret it, since it tends to conjure up images of pirouettes in leather rather than the image I was intending, actually, which is that of ballet dancers rebelling against the strict constraints of ballet’s form. Nevertheless, my original comparison still stands, and Cunningham and her dancers have the gorgeous lines and technique to prove it. (“Beautiful arabesques,” another critic murmured to me in the interval.)
Cunningham is the inaugural Leverhulme Choreography Fellow at Rambert and it’s clear why she was chosen – there’s a clarity and pronounced beauty in her work that will have the chance to shine through the stucco of her influences as her work matures. Though this double bill didn’t quite pull it off, it still suggests great things, and a maker who is smart, assured and sharply engaged with the world around her and the ways to gather it to her.
For more information on the Julie Cunningham Double Bill at the Barbican, click here.