There’s too much to say about Merce Cunningham’s Ocean, copresented this weekend by Northrop, St. Benedict, and the Walker Art Center at the Rainbow Quarry—too much about Cunningham, about this production, about Ocean itself. If I went into all that, I’d have no space to tell you what it was like to be there. Suffice it to say that Ocean is BIG, big: It headed The New York Times list of this season’s dance events; it exhausted a small army of dancers, musicians, funders, technicians, organizers, and even bus drivers. I’ll refer you to my preview article in the September issue of Mpls.St.Paul Magazine for the rest, and get on with the work itself.
The music. One minute before showtime, a clarinetist at center stage tunes the four corners of the orchestra; she might be calling the four winds. When, a moment later, Andrew Culver’s music begins on all sides, it’s an army that suddenly crests the walls of a canyon, hanging for a moment at the rim before rushing in. David Tudor’s electronic score adds thunder that might shake loose the quarry walls. Or, in a quieter mood, whale-song and bird cries—while the live musicians seem almost like human voices, scattered here and there in the audience. You hear rain to your right; it takes a long time to recognize it as part of the score. Later, a heartbeat charges the last minutes of this teeming cosmos of sound.
The movement. It’s hard to understand how Cunningham’s 1950s audiences could have been shocked by his movement style; today, Cunningham looks more classical than most ballet. Certainly his work demands classical virtues of dancers: they need strength, discipline, and integrity to get through his one-legged landings, his arduous sequences pieced together without the help of slur-steps, his unassisted promenades and développés. These last two items—slow revolutions and extensions, performed on one foot—once featured largely in ballet, but were given up for the showier maneuvers of pas de deux. Cunningham’s steps are not pyrotechnic but planetary, giving a sense of geometrical planes that radiate out into space, slow or thick elements the dancers move through. Even in playful or witty moments, exacting precision remains. The image that sticks is a single dancer in a pose that gleams with victorious effort.
The dance. Famously, Cunningham pulls his steps together into larger sequences with the assistance of chance, but what does this backside-of-the-embroidery information have to do with a viewer? Nothing, really. But given this keyword chance, you might notice the randomness of your own attention—how you see a dancer’s shape in the background, think about tomorrow’s schedule, then are caught by the sudden exaltation of a leap. You might quit worrying about seeing the dance and pull back to a general attention in which the matrix of moves and dancers is a miraculous vision into a concentrated span of life, that truly narrative-less twisting and work, meeting, parting, and beauty. Here, you catch a symmetry just as it dissolves: every dancer on one foot, still, or a diagonal line advancing. Here, two dancers coincide in a tender duet, lifting, touching, and mirroring each other for a precious few minutes you are lucky to have seen.
The design. Light and the saturated colors of the costumes (simple unitards or, later, translucent shift dresses) act as temperature in Ocean. White lights flick on and flood you with a cold wind. Dancers in blue-black unitards have the same effect, but when new dancers enter in sun-gold and red, warmth returns. It’s an illusion of warmth, because the quarry is quite cold when the sun goes down, so cold that steam rises from the dancers’ bodies—evidence of their work. The ruggedly worked walls of the quarry go nearly invisible during the performance, but their towering presence remains—and reappears in the electrifying white light of the last few minutes. Those minutes are counted by four large television screens mounted at the four corners of the stage. This strange feature mostly makes you aware of the mercurial passage of time: how ten minutes can go by in a blink, how much intricate action can fit in sixty seconds.
But time has another resonance in Ocean. Despite the surround-sound, despite the busy dance, Ocean holds a deep silence. You are silent while this spectacle is brought to brief life; when it ends, you go on with your noisy life, while this vision vanishes into the actual silence of underwater, perhaps, or of granite. The surrounding rock walls are felt in the darkness as monuments of time and silence. It’s this that gives special urgency to the last few seconds, ticked off on the clocks, as one dancer, having held out moving as long as he can, rushes off stage just as the dark veil falls.