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spectrum/stg’s icono-clan: a review

By Josh Windsor

1 of 3 from Icono-Clan (photo © Gabriel Bienczycki)
Let me start by thanking Spectrum Dance Theater. It is always a pleasure to see Merce Cunningham’s work presented on Northwest stages, and the opportunity does not arise often enough. In his pre-curtain talk, Artistic Director Donald Byrd spoke of the need to present more pieces by Northwest artists, and his desire to add works by Mark Morris, Stephanie Skura, and Trisha Brown to Spectrum’s repetoire. I couldn’t agree more.

This weekend’s engagement of Icon-Clan by Spectrum Dance Theater at Seattle Theatre Group’s Moore Theatre was not about geography, however, but about histories—or perhaps trajectories is a better description. The program consisted of three pieces by Merce Cunningham, Gus Solomons Jr., and Donald Byrd. It was Merce Cunningham’s 1972 work Landrover which introduced the program and formed the framework for interpreting the other two pieces.

Landrover was reconstructed and staged by Sandra Neels for Spectrum as two excerpts of the original work. The music floats from piano, to ambient noise, to synthetic sound, to silence in a score collaboratively composed by John Cage, Gordon Mumma, and David Tudor.

Merce Cunningham’s

Viewing it today, Cunningham’s mark on contemporary dance is immediately evident. This is not the emotional journey into the human psyche that Martha Graham and Isadora Duncan gave to American dance, but an exploration of form and geometry. Much of Cunningham’s career has been spent investigating to role of chance in artistic creation. Yet the precision of movement and use of space in his finished works rarely hints at this underlying concept.

Second on the program was Gus Solomons’ Statement of Nameless Roots II.

Gus Solomons’ Statement of Nameless Roots II

Solomons, whose many other engagements included dancing with Merce Cunningham, created Statement of Nameless Roots II in 1976 to further explore themes he had developed the previous year in a solo aptly titled Statement of Nameless Roots. Not surprisingly, the piece looks a lot like the work of Cunningham. The same attention to placement of dancers and line of the body can be seen. The notable exception is that Solomons’ work is self-consciously aware of this structure. There are moments of joy and fatigue, where the dancers break from their role as presenter of form and into a more empathetic role as actor, providing a sharp contrast to the formalism.

Donald Byrd’s Sentimental Cannibalism

The last piece of the evening was Donald Byrd’s Sentimental Cannibalism created for Phoenix Dance Company in 1993. This marked the most radical departure from Cunnigham’s technique on the program. Byrd writes in the program that the inspiration for Sentimental Cannibalism came from Jena Baudrillard’s On Seduction, where he wrote that seduction is defined as a relation, “quite different from communication and exchange;” a relation “removed from exchange,” and based on a “challenge.” And Byrd’s interpretation of this sentiment takes it to task. Every moment of partnering in Sentimental Cannibalism is competition of will. Dancers vie for each other’s attention only to hurl their object of desire off into another partnering. Aided by an ever-crescendoing score by Mio Morales, the piece reaches fenzied climax after frenzied climax.

This was the first time in recent years that Spectrum has not presented a new work at its spring mainstage performance. It afforded a great opportunity to step back an reconsider the roots of Donald Byrd’s recent choreography and help situate it in a line of American choreography—a tradition that even Donald Byrd admits is self-invented.