I intended to hibernate for first weekend of my return, to unpack my luggage and spend quiet moments reminiscing about my trip. So it was a pleasant surprise to hear from a friend, who, not even sure I had returned, invited me to see a dance performance. I was excited to continue my dance pursuits while reorienting myself in Vancouver.
One of the pieces performed that night was Merce Cunningham’s, Native Green, with music composed by his close collaborator and partner, John Cage. Merce, he is hardly referred to by his last name, was one of the most pivotal choreographers in contemporary dance, a visionary, as was Martha Graham, George Balanchine and Sergei Dhiaglev. He created an expressive and technically demanding style of movement that bridged the rivalry in the 70’s and 80’s between contemporary dance and classical ballet. He challenged traditional notions of dance movement and brought out the theatricality in pedestrian gestures. He even rejected the locked partnership between dance and music. In many of his works, dancers rehearsed separately from the musicians, completely unknowing of the music until just before the performance. He relished in the ephemeral nature of dance’s existence, as experienced by the dancer and audience alike.
It’s rare to see Merce’s work in Vancouver. The city has a shallow relationship with dance. When the Cuban National Ballet came, performing Don Quixote, a version choreographed by the company’s legendary artistic director, Alicia Alonso, ticket prices were slashed by 30 percent in the days before the performance just to fill seats. It’s no wonder that theaters hesitate to present dance shows, and for that matter, anything outside the narrowest definition of mainstream entertainment. However, Vancouver, makes up for this with its natural beauty and is constantly ranked as one of the world’s most livable cities. From any vantage point, its snow capped mountains, pristine forests and the lapping waves of Burrard Inlet can all be captured in the same photo frame. Its joggers and cyclists have the cleanest lungs in the world. Traffic jams are inconsequential, and work ends on time so that these outdoorsy, easy-going locals can tuck-in early to chase the sunrise on a morning hike. Native Green, inspired by movements in nature, seemed fitting for this city.
The choreography held Merce’s trademarks – dynamic yet fluid, rhythmic and cyclical. It created patterns that stepped smoothly from phrase to phrase, with movements that were magnified through the slightest transfer of weight. My eyes followed the dancers, who glided on and off the stage in singles and pairs, never leaving the slightly cramped stage empty. I tried to feel the motions of the dancers and their energy, and tried to conclude an overall context or feeling for this piece. The dancers seemed to be giving their full effort, but something was missing. Their limbs didn’t reach into the meaning of the movement, the directional changes seemed deliberate rather than be smoothly carried by the momentum of the choreography. Their deadpan faces stared back at each other and the audience.
I had a flashback to a rehearsal of the Nederlands Dans Theater, seeing their athletic bodies bend and shape to express definitive emotions. I remembered the dancers of Pina Bausch, who, with the most subtle glance, stared right into my deepest secrets. But here, even from my first-row seat, it seemed like a I was watching these dancers through a television screen. There was no smell, no taste, not even a whiff of sweat or a sense of heat from these six moving bodies. As these dancers moved lifelessly in my frame of vision, my mind overlapped with images of the L.A. Dance Project performing William Forsythe’s Quintett, bringing back the elation I felt as the dancers pulled me through a range of emotions in their movement. Then, I recalled the kooky Six Dances, choreographed by Jiri Kylian and danced by the Hungarian National Ballet; it was such a wry, comical satire and it made me forget I was watching a ballet. I thought of the intensely energetic dancers of the company, Waatu Siita, as passionate as the Senegalese heat in June. That warmth, I felt again sitting in the sunny cafeteria of the Laban Conservatoire in London, interviewing a dancer from Wayne McGregor’s company, Random Dance, who wore the brightest, happiest after-class smile I’d seen. I heard fragmented phrases in the voices of the dancers I’d met, recounting memorable moments of their career. Then I drifted off into the dreamy grandeur created in Mariinsky ballets, and those opulent, 300 year old theaters with chairs of plush velvet and engraved wood trim. I wondered whether I would ever see such beauty again.
In that moment, my stomach tightened, pulling me back to the present. I became aware of the austere theater I was in, and that the dancers weren’t even on an elevated stage. I looked up at the ceiling, painted matte black, not a Chagall fresco. Audience members around me stared blankly at the dancers on stage. I felt a heat creeping up my neck and softly tingling my cheeks. Loose strands of hair around my face bothered me intensely now, and my eyes blinked rapidly to erase the watery blur that welled up. I crossed and uncrossed my legs in my folding chair and straightened my posture. But I couldn’t stop the warm, heavy droplets from escaping my eyes, to the incoherent staccato of Cage’s music.
I felt nothing from Native Green, and it brought me to tears.