- The Washington Times - Monday, March 29, 2004

The fey side of Merce Cunningham was a prominent feature of the program the celebrated choreographer brought to the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater over the past weekend.

His company of dancers, making one of its rare Washington appearances, fielded works that were sometimes absurdist or touched with deadpan wit.

The opening “Pond Way,” seen here four years ago, boasts a wonderful serene backdrop by Roy Lichtenstein — a blowup of one of his dot paintings (“Landscape With Boat”).

It is Mr. Cunningham’s “white ballet” — classical and Apollonian in spirit. The controlled articulation of the choreography, such as balancing on one highly arched foot with the other leg raised in the air, can be difficult. Some dancers could cope with it; others showed the strain.

The musical scores Mr. Cunningham chooses are often more like aural landscapes, and their relation to the dance is deliberately tangential, the major requirement being that both begin and end at the same time.

In Bryan Eno’s score for “Pond Way,” there were low hums that might have been foghorns, and the croaking ga-lup of frogs — matched by a repeated motif of exuberant knee-bent frog leaps.

The bucolic sounds of “Pond Way” gave way to the urban noises of rasping buzzes and muffled pneumatic drills in John King’s score for “Fluid Canvas.”

For all the focus on Mr. Cunningham’s choreography — its blend of ballet’s strong spine and crisply articulated feet with modern dance’s powerful torso — the dancers’ movements were sometimes overshadowed by other theatrical elements. The decor by Marc Downie, Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser and lighting by James Hall often became more interesting than what the dancers were doing in front of it.

The concluding “How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run” dispensed altogether with a sound score. Instead it offered antic anecdotes written by the composer John Cage, who was a major contributor to the company’s aesthetic during his lifetime. When I saw “How to Pass” in New York City in the late ‘60s, Mr. Cage presided at a table in a side box, sipping champagne and delivering his lines with the timing of a skilled raconteur.

In this revival of the work, Mr. Cunningham himself and his archivist, David Vaughan, sitting side by side stage right, spoke the late Mr. Cage’s words with dry and effective deadpan wit.

How can mere dance compete with such absurdities as that?

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