“Could you make a dance in the round?” John Cage asked Merce Cunningham before the James Joyce/John Cage Festival in Zurich, in June 1991. Cage had in mind a dance performed in the middle of a circular space, surrounded by the audience and then musicians, in concentric circles. There being no suitable venue at the Swiss event, Cage’s idea was set aside, and a little more than a year later, he died, quite unexpectedly.
|Photo credit: Cameron Wittig. Courtesy of Walker Art Center.
Cunningham, as ever persevering, finally realized their grand scheme in Brussels on May 18, 1994, at the vertiginous theater-in-the-round called the Cirque Royal. There, for the first time, 112 orchestra musicians played a complicated 2,403-page score, “Ocean 1-95,” by Andrew Culver, elaborating on Cage’s initial plans; at the same time, David Tudor introduced his live electronic soundscape, “Soundings: Ocean Diary,” comprised of eerily reprocessed underwater noise. Marsha Skinner’s sea-inspired leotards and filmy dresses painted the dancers in purples, turquoises, oranges, mauves, violets — the colors of the sun, the sky, the untroubled sea. The dance itself was an amazement: 90 teeming minutes of movement, perfectly without front, back, or sides.
The dance was revived thrice, the last time for a fantastic run in the Rainbow Granite Quarry in Minnesota, in 2008. There, Charles Atlas, Cunningham’s long time collaborator in filmmaking, captured the dance. Although you can’t see him in the film, the choreographer is there — just off the circle of the stage, near the ramp by which the second dancer in the piece enters, bundled in a winter coat and hat and scarf against the damp and bitter night air.
At the time of that revival, in July 2008, I asked Merce Cunningham about the process of making “Ocean,” in one of 19 interviews for the web series “Mondays with Merce.” Here are excerpts, never before published, from that discussion.
Continue reading “OCEAN, a conversation”