Dance review: Cunningham program at the Pillow stuns the eye, but tortures the ear

On opening night of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at Jacob’s Pillow, executive director Ella Ba

On opening night of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at Jacob’s Pillow, executive director Ella Baff described the company and its founder as one that ushers dance into the future. But if the future sounds like what the company is dancing to this week, I’d like the pleasure indefinitely postponed.

Cunningham, who is celebrating his 90th birthday with this Pillow program, must be admired as a dance revolutionary. He was the first choreographer who viewed dance as completely independent of its accompanying music and decor. For more than a half century, the choreographer, composer and designer would work separately, only to come together for the first time opening night.

Needless to say, this experiment has made some interesting combinations. It has also created some marvelously intelligent dancers who do not have the luxury of marking their movement in musical time and texture. That’s the good stuff.

Gratingly loud

What is difficult to handle, and this is true of every Cunningham concert, is the music. It’s grating and loud, so sitting through the program on Wednesday night was torturous, and I would add, dangerous to the eardrums. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but when the seats and floor in the theater throb, it’s too loud. And what Cunningham calls music, provided live via computer mixing by Fast Forward, is annoying. It all sounds the same, like a skipping record or a tape screeching along on fast forward.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company

WHERE: Jacob’s Pillow, Route 20, Becket, Mass.

WHEN: 8 p.m. today, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

HOW MUCH: $58, $53 seniors and students; $10 on Sunday for children

MORE INFO: (413) 243-0745 or

If only Cunningham’s dances were presented in silence, all would be well.

Of course, he continues to innovate. Take his “eyeSpace,” one of three works on the Pillow program. Each audience member is asked to pick up an iPod in two stations at the theater’s entrance. Then, as the work unfolds, audience members shuffle the provided music. If they don’t like using the iPod, they can opt for the shrieking “music,” which the audience is told is “ambient sound.” It made no difference, as the ambient wails overtook what was tinkling over the iPods.

Still, the look of “eyeSpace” was a stunner. A dozen dancers, wearing unitards in various shades of blue, are set against a fetching décor by Henry Samelson. “Blues Arrive Not Anticipating What Transpires Even Between Themselves” was so interesting to look at, for its perspective, color and implied activity, that even if the dance grew tedious, the décor did not.

Computer creation

Like “CRWDSPCER,” (pronounced crowdspacer), the another work on the bill, this dance was created with a computer program (another Cunningham first.) It looks as if the dancers are robotic, mimicking stick figures manipulated to travel on a trajectory.

I prefer the last and final piece, “Sounddance,” created the standard way, with dancers and the choreographer in the studio. From 1975, dancers, led by the ageless Robert Swinston, rush from behind a gold, draped curtain to perform some heart-pumping, breathtaking moves. After, they bound away one by one until Swinston is left alone. It’s beautiful.

Too bad the sound was on.

Categories: Entertainment

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