Biped with CNDC Angers
I saw the Merce Cunningham Dance Company for the first time in November 1966 when they performed for two weeks at the Saville Theatre, London. The first piece I saw was Nocturnes, with design by Robert Rauschenberg, and Erik Satie’s Five Nocturnes for piano, played by John Cage. I remember especially a solo section danced by Merce himself. The costumes were white; there was a gauze at the front of the stage with projected bright white light; and I thought that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. After the interval came Variations V, in which there was apparent chaos throughout – in reality many layers of chance operations – with the movement of dancers near or around various antennae triggering electronic sounds, objects (including plants) having contact microphones attached and so on. It was tremendous.
I decided that this was the kind of thing I wanted to do: to work in this way.
I saw a number of other performances at that time, was at a performance by Cage. I also met and talked with him backstage and he was interested in what I was doing and took a couple of manuscripts from me.
Over the years I would see the company whenever it appeared in London, I got to know some of the dancers, and I was working as musical artistic director at the Leicester Haymarket Theatre when we had a dance festival in the theatre and brought the company there.
Then in 1999, seven years after John’s death, I worked with Merce on Biped – in reality were met and saw each other several times over the preceding year. I would also attend other performances before the premiere of Biped in 1999, such as Ocean (Belfast 1997) and Pond Way (Paris Opera 1998) when I met my friend Tony Creamer for the first time. So, for the last ten years of Merce’s life I found myself working with him just as John had done, and then for two years after his death for the Legacy Tour.
In June 2013 I performed Biped with the Bavarian State Ballet, who had been taught the work by Jennifer Goggans and Robert Swinston and with my ensemble we continued to play this both in Munich and elsewhere for the next couple of years. James Woodrow (electric guitar) and Audrey Riley (cello) had performed the work since its first performances in Europe; I played electric keyboard and bass; and Morgan Goff (occasionally deputised by Katie Wilkinson) took the violin part originally played by Takehisa Kosugi – on viola rather than violin, and the part also involved improvising with amplified small stones.
Then, from September 2018 until December 2019 it was taken into the repertoire of the Centre National de Danse Contemporaine d’Angers, where Robert Swinston had become artistic director and where he created a company of dancers who were trained in the Cunningham technique and who were taught works from the Cunningham canon. Our usual programme was to perform Beach Birds, to music by Cage, in the first part and then Biped in the second half (once, in Abu Dhabi, the first half had James Woodrow and I doing the readings for How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run…) . Our first performance opened the 2018 dance festival in Lyon and our last, in December 2019, was in Val de Reuil, near Rouen.
One curiosity for us was that, unlike whenever we performed with the Cunningham Company itself, and with the Munich too, with Angers we almost never played in an orchestral pit. Most of the theatres did not have a pit and so the first few performances especially involved some imaginative and inventive solutions to this question. The first, in Lyon, was the most extreme. Morgan and I were in loges high up on opposite sides above the stage, with Audrey and James at the auditorium floor level to one side. We communicated and were mixed via remote microphones. After that we managed to be all together at floor level, but sometimes the spaces were so small that it was almost impossible to get out once we were installed. In due course we learned to live with this and even got to like it. And then when we did find ourselves in a pit we still crammed ourselves into one corner, rather than spread out as we had always done with Merce – where the sound engineer had also been in the pit with us…
Those months of touring with the company were immensely pleasurable and artistically very satisfying. In my view, having witnessed Merce’s work for over 50 years, the Angers dancers were every bit the equal of the various generations of Merce’s dancers, and Biped and the other works they performed were absolutely authentic: it was not a case of historical recreation, it was vital living work, performed exquisitely to the highest artistic standards. The company was also the nicest and friendliest at all levels – dancers, administration, technical crew – with whom we the musicians became close friends, almost a family. Here there were none of the emotional intrigues or tensions that were in the original company and which are now well documented. We would, for example, generally all eat together after the show, and the musicians would usually have lunch with the three-man technical crew who, as is the tradition in France, always managed to find a decent restaurant nearby with a good plat du jour. (In the company’s home base in Angers we invited their regular lunchtime waitress to the performance along with her daughter…)
Our hope had been to fill 2019, Merce’s centenary year, with performances all over the world but sadly this only succeeded to a partial extent. I feel quite strongly that the fact that this project was not seen during this year in several countries where Merce’s work had flourished was down to some erroneous choices and questionable decisions in those places. And although we performed in many parts of France, it is sad that Paris, where Merce had so many triumphs, was not one of them.
Nevertheless, we had collectively given performances of the highest quality over a period that was, for all of us, a very special time. It felt rather strange, in January 2020, for the four of us not to meet at the St Pancras Eurostar terminal to take the 12:34 to Paris for what had been the start of several journeys… And as it turns out, even if performances had been arranged for the Spring, they would have been cancelled along with everything else in the current crisis…
CNDC Angers performances
September 12-14 Lyon
September 20 Le Mans
September 26-27 Angers
January 10 Laval
January 19-21 Nantes
January 23 La Roche sur Yon
March 12 Le Havre
March 14 Arques
March 21 Dunkirk
July 27 Bolzano (Italy)
September 13 Biarritz
October 3-5 Washington DC (USA)
October 10-11 New York (Beach Birds only)
October 30 Abu Dhabi (with How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run instead of Beach Birds)
November 16 Davis, California
November 21-23 Portland Oregon
December 6 Val de Reuil
(25 Biped; 26 Beach Birds; 1 How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run)