As part of the magnificent Common Time exhibit running through April 30 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, CCN-Ballet de Lorraine presented three works to full houses as part of the exhibition's complementary performance offerings. At first, the program didn't make much sense to me: "Works by Merce Cunningham and Others". The connection between the company's first piece, an ultra-modern video and movement installation called "Untitled Partner #3", and the other two, ultra-Modern – capital M – dance classics from the late choreographer Merce Cunningham, share little in common apart from their strict attention to form and co-director Thomas Caley's history as a dancer with the Cunningham company.
As it turns out, this juxtaposition between past and present is central to Ballet de Lorraine's mission, a company from the northeast of France and the resident company at the Centre Chorégraphique National (CCN), a European hub for dance research and choreographic exploration. So, in a way, "Works by Merce Cunningham and Others" was a perfect representation of that mission.
Entering the MCA's Edlis Neeson Theater Sunday, "Untitled Partner #3" was already underway. Three screens upstage filled only half the vertical space, with Dove Bradshaw's muted color backdrop from Cunningham's 1987 "Fabrications" peeking out above the otherwise black and white scheme. Three projectors sit downstage, but occasionally are used as props as four dancers donning black clothes and tennis shoes busy themselves with a repeating cycle of flight into log rolls, moving piercingly bright florescent tubes around the space and posing in pairs behind said lights, or hoisting the projectors up to cast their images onto the walls and ceiling of the theater. It's a visually fatiguing loop to take in. The super bright lights verge on blinding, depending on where you sit, and the three separate video projections create a dizzying series of twirls and leaps that look like stop motion animation – single images pieced together like a flip-book of almost comically robotic images.
The screens peel away to reveal Bradshaw's drop in its full glory. It's a magical, Nutcracker-y transformation scene, pulling away decades of dance history for the crisp Cunningham aesthetic, shown here through "Fabrications" and "Sounddance" (1975). So the rest of the evening is, well, Cunningham. "Fabrications" is an exercise in randomness, in which the order of 64 movement phrases is selected by chance. Considered alongside the Common Time exhibit, which highlights Cunningham's contributions and artistic collaborations throughout his illustrious career, this is a perfect example of his desire to see dance, music, and art collide in rather meaningless ways. Many viewers yearn for a narrative arc, and while "Fabrications" doesn't automatically find one, its many salient moments give a sense of relationships between the dancers.
"Sounddance" was created as a rejection of ballet, perhaps poking a little fun at it with its gaudy gold drapery, tucked and swagged all across the upstage. Dancers burst through the curtains one-by-one and, per usual, give a seemingly meaningless, unemotional display of technical bravado. "Sounddance" is unforgiving to the performers and to us, who rarely, if ever, get a visual or auditory break. But it's fun to watch in that sense because I can't, realistically, imagine what it must feel like to dance something so intellectually intact, and so impossibly hard.
Arts patrons long for something pretty to look at, something with a story, or at least a resolution, and you'll get none of that here. Cunningham was a radical figure who railed against conventional dancing his entire career, and it might be worth mentioning that he was still creating work at the turn of the 21st century. What strikes me most about Merce is that all of it still feels and looks radical. And I suppose that's why the extensive effort to celebrate and preserve his work is worth it.