One of my college professors told me that letting your eyes focus in different ways while watching dance can offer endless enlightenment. Zoom in on something, then zoom out, or let everything blur together and then come into focus. I tried this approach many times while watching Merce Cunningham Dance Company perform Roaratorio on December 7th at BAM. Whether everything was crystal clear or swirling together, I was mesmerized from start to finish. The company’s Legacy Tour comes to an end on December 31st, but this was my very last Cunningham performance. I was clinging to everything on stage – the colors, the sounds, the dancers’ gorgeous lines and shapes and patterns, the eerily beautiful, disorienting score by John Cage. It was momentous, riveting, and then all too soon, over.
I haven’t enjoyed everything I’ve seen by Cunningham, and the first few performances I saw by his company several years ago left me confused, perhaps even irritated. But with every performance that I’ve watched, I’ve felt more and more certain of two things: 1. These dances are extraordinary and unlike anything else, and 2. Cunningham is the most groundbreaking choreographer of our time, and absolutely brilliant. On the 7th, it was exciting to witness such a monumental performance, and simultaneously heartbreaking to witness the end of the company at a time when I’m so eager to see more of Cunningham, to keep reveling in his brilliance.
Created in 1983, Roaratorio pulls from Irish step dancing and is inspired by James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake”. This lively, textured work shows couples coming together for festive social dancing featuring rapid footwork fused with dramatic tilts of the torso. The stage was busy yet clean, with dancers moving at different tempos or joining others to build something new altogether. John Cage’s richly layered 1979 score, “Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake,” is remarkable on its own, but even more beautiful when paired with Cunningham’s choreography. Sounds from everyday life – a crying baby, traffic, a leaky faucet – blend with traditional Irish music. I strained my ears at times to identify the different sounds, to determine where one sound ended and another began. Running through the mesmerizing soundscape was text from “Finnegan’s Wake”, adding yet another dimension. Like Cunningham’s movement, the score was busy but never messy. It felt like a long, hazy memory – or strands from many memories – that was strikingly reflected in the lighting design by Mark Lancaster and Christine Shallenberg. At one moment the dancers are bathed in sunlight, at another shadows are cast across their faces. Whether encompassing a whole day, a week, or a year, Roaratorio reflects the passing of time.