Wednesday, 25 May 2011
Cheeky memories - Flip Book
For the first half hour, I swore that Cunningham and Cage were turning in their graves.
Charmatz and co. looked like a gang of merry bandits stuffed into the most merciless unitards to do a massive spoof a la the Reduced Shakespeare Company. The arena-like stage was filled with incomplete contractions, sloppy balances, and careless lines paired with cheesy grimaces. A pathetic mime imitation of Cage doing old fashioned analog editing while the music alternated between Cage-y noises, static, and period pop of the 50s and 60s. I found myself laughing, but in horror. Among the sound crew seated just in front of the stage, the namesake picture book was being flipped as they danced, but even in the small Drama Centre theatre I couldn't see a thing of it. The house was half full, and one chap walked out. I wasn't sure whether to be relieved or even more pissed off when the dance seemed to end in a premature curtain call at what felt like thirty minutes. Billed as a memorial to Cunningham, Flip Book seemed to be no more a tribute than Joavien Ng's bitter take on Martha Graham in Body Inquire (2008).
Then they started again! For two more rounds, each faster and sillier than the last. Then I had some time to relax a bit and start to enjoy the nonsense, and get prodded to think about my discomfort. What is this awe which my Western contemporary dance training has given me for the work of Cunningham? What has he really left to us? The strict precision of form and direction that I studied with Larry Clark (two generations from Cunningham via Viola Farber) is one way to remember Merce, but these philosophies about movement and space also influenced a great part of the dance world even if you didn't actually study with him. In the 50s and 60s his company struggled with great resistance from audiences, but his work has now become canon. What would it take today to innovate like him? To surprise, shock, disgust and delight in the way that he used to do?
It made more sense as I heard more about Charmatz' underlying concept for the piece. This wasn't one of those pleasing shows where the audience can get its satisfaction in one go and understand everything just from seeing the work. It is very specific in this case, as Mayo Martin has pointed out it is a work that references something that references something. And Cunningham may be a giant in the contemporary dance world but you just can't compare it to the anglophone world's access to Shakespeare. This is one of those shows that requires a fair bit of audience work to grasp. I don't think that's bad, but it's also not easy.
I was interested in how Charmatz insists on working out each edition of Flip Book in only five days, and that he recreates it simply from the visual impression of the pictures, with groups of very different experience - high school kids, Cunningham veterans (incidentally very Pina/Kontakthof). Here was a strong reflection on history and how we receive and replicate it, and a deliberate contrast to the usual methods by which we study dancing - directly from the master's body, precisely, painstakingly and unfortunately too often without questioning.
Flip Book by Boris Charmatz/Musee de la danse, Drama Centre Theatre on 16-17 May 2011