- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 12, 2004

Merce Cunningham, that grand old man of modern dance, brought his ever-young company to Maryland University’s Clarice Smith Center this past week for three evenings of elegant games and high jinks.

Throughout his long and illustrious career Mr. Cunningham has been fascinated by the use of chance, often turning to the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes, or using a throw of the dice to determine the length or sequence of movements.

In his latest dance, “Split Sides,” the choreographer found a most intriguing and theatrical way to give the audience a vivid look at that approach in practice.

True to its title, the work is split in two right down the middle. The movements are in two 20-minute segments. There are two sets of lighting designs and two sets of costumes, one colorfully splashed with yellows and corals, the other covered in gray, black and white scrolls.

Most remarkably of all, Mr. Cunningham, 85, has turned to two of the hottest, most avant-garde rock groups in the world — the British-based Radiohead and the Icelandic band Sigur Ros — to provide the music for the two halves of “Split Sides.”

The word avant-garde seems almost coined for Mr. Cunningham, who has been cutting-edge himself and with his choice of associates throughout his career. Most central of all was his close professional and personal relationship with the late composer John Cage.

Other collaborators of his read like a who’s who of 20th century art — Robert Rauschenberg, the filmmaker Charles Atlas, David Tudor, Andy Warhol, Frank Stella and Jasper Johns. Mr. Cunningham has pioneered the use of computer programs like LifeForms as a way of extending the random choreography to which he is committed.

There is, in a way, nothing novel about his approach in “Split Sides” except for his turning to such youthfully appealing groups as Radiohead and Sigur Ros.

At the beginning of the concert, the venerable Mr. Cunningham, looking like a white-haired cherub, presided over a group of civilians on stage who threw dice to determine which musical score would be played first, what costumes the dancers would wear, and which movements — A or B— they would dance first. The effect was to draw the audience into the heart of the creative process.

Perhaps awed by the director’s aura, the music was a serene collage, with Radiohead throwing in snatches of talking and sounds of coughing and Sigur Ros using blocked ballet shoes to create percussive sounds. At its premiere in New York last spring both bands were in the orchestra pit; the performance here used tapes of the bands along with several live musicians layering sounds on top of that.

By definition, each evening here was bound to be different. The opening night throw of the dice brought up a performance where the wash of Radiohead’s sound, the shimmering pastel banners that floated from the ceiling, the dancers brisk, purposeful clarity and an intense, moving solo by Jonah Bakaer, created a spare, harmonious texture.

In the second half the stage darkened, as did the costumes; the lighting became harsher, Sigur Ros’ buzzes and bell-like sounds punctuated the atmosphere. At the end a female soloist performed another extended solo that ended in darkness as the dancer exited.

The final two nights were sure to produce different experiences for the audience as the throw of the dice led to other combinations of the elements and other juxtapositions of tension and harmony.

Decor for “Split Sides” was by Robert Heishman and Catherine Yass. Costumes for both sections were by James Hall with lighting by James F. Ingalls.

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