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Dance Review: Merce Cunningham's "Roaratorio"

06/23/2010 02:59 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"It was unutterably moving to watch," said long time company archivist David Vaughan of the historic reconstruction of "Roaratorio" (1983) that graced Merce Cunningham Dance Company's fare-thee-well performances at Los Angeles's Walt Disney Concert Hall the weekend of June 4.

"We all feel Merce in the dance."

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Watching company elder Robert Swinston, 60, clad in purple trousers, perform Cunningham's solo midway through "Roaratorio's" heady deconstruction of Irish social dance, you recognize the great departed dancer/choreographer's idiosyncratic gestures.

The way Merce liked to lunge sideways, how he would kick like a Rockette while walking, stab a straight arm to advance himself through space ... seeing this, you miss him. It makes you remember the thrilling moment when he would join his (young) group on stage -- and the way his odd elfin presence, and his separateness, would affect the proceedings.

"Roaratorio," for me, needed two viewings. The same dance whose hard-core relentlessness almost broke me on Friday, two days later swelled my emotions with its sensual beauty!

Sunday's outpost in Disney Hall's uppermost rows gave the most pleasurable perspective. There, on high, the aural flotsam and jetsam of John Cage's brilliant Ireland-derived score wafted through the air. (James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake" inspired the ambient sound collage -- seagulls, car traffic, baby cries, moos, neighs.) And you could gaze down on Cunningham's immensely contained, rigorous choreographic chess game.

The unceasing pageant of "Roaratorio" is revealed through many memorable dance episodes; Swinston indicates 36 components contributed to the whole. In the sequence that, for me, forms the heart of the ballet's long contiguous outpouring, four to five dancers traverse the stage, freely and grandly, adding and dropping colleagues from the wings as they go. It's the tide washing over the shore, dislodging and dispersing pebbles and seaweed with each swipe. A man enters, but rather than join the pulsating group, he lifts and puts down a woman without losing a beat. It's abstract, beautiful patterning, and when Cunningham adds the unexpected lift you think, aha, so this is choreography.

By "Roaratorio's" end, you're seeing an Irish village. The community's youngsters engage in mating duets, facing one another, raising and holding hands high to the side. Only it's fractured fairy tales; they're broken puppets and it's all off-sync; they're herky-jerky reelers. Right at that moment, perfectly, a sheep rudely bleets in Cage's score.

Other couples seem older: crisscrossing arms, they conduct a foggy do-si-do, slowly, methodically, promenading the stage. Here, a touch of Irish melancholia seeps in.2010-06-16-merce260.jpeg

Merce, we knew ye well. He was the dance world's leprechaun.

Cunningham trademarks are all present: the plethora of leaps (for a long stretch the dance seems to be all leaping), the stage-skittering "triplets," the calmly planted big-bird arabesques, and, most familiar, upper-torso arches with sudden side- or upward-tilts of the head. Who else does this move? No one. Only Merce Cunningham.

Walt Disney Concert Hall as a dance venue! The dancers, when "off duty," repair to seats behind the stage, still in full audience view, and there they rest, sip from water bottles and await re-entry. One cannot help but muse that architect Frank Gehry upholstered these seats with vibrant flowered fabric to honor his patron Lillian Disney's love of gardening. And how we would do the same for Merce if only we could ... hand him a huge bouquet.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performed "Roaratorio" at the Montpellier Dance Festival, Montpellier, France on June 18-20. They continue their tour throughout the summer in Spain, Germany, Greece, England, and New York. Please click here for more.

Los Angeles arts journalist Debra Levine blogs at arts•meme.