Ballet de Lorraine Performs Captivating Works by Merce Cunningham

In this two-part series, CGN intern Jacqueline Lewis shares her insights into the new Merce Cunningham: Common Time exhibition and accompanying performances at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Lewis has been a dancer for most of her life; she took her first dance lesson at two years old, and she began training with the Lou Conte Dance Studio at the age of sixteen. The second part in the series focuses on Centre Chorégraphique National–Ballet de Lorraine's recent performance of works from Cunningham's repertoire. 


The stage of the Edlis Neeson Theater at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) was dark when the performance Works by Merce Cunningham and Others began with Untitled Partner #3. The only light radiated from movable LED lights and video projections of dancers dressed in white. Four male dancers entered the stage and began to interact with the highlights and shadows provided by this unconventional stage lighting. At times, the dancers manipulated the projectors and lights, adding a dimension of uncertainty to the performance.

The choreography demonstrated the dancers' strength and trust in their partners. They ran back and forth, throwing themselves towards the ground and rolling away, while at the same time supporting each other in an effort to create and hold difficult shapes.

Untitled Partner #3 was created by CCN-Ballet Lorraine’s artistic director Petter Jacobson and the coordinator of research, Thomas Caley. Caley danced with Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1993-2000, and the iconic choreographer's influence is apparent in Caley's mixed media approach to performance, his choice of electronic musical and the athletic choreography.

The next piece, Fabrications, showcased Ballet de Lorraine’s large cast of dancers. The company is based in Nancy, France and has developed an impressive reputation due to their large contemporary repertoire as well as works that span modern history. This, along with their director’s experience, makes them an ideal company to demonstrate the works of Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC).

Merce Cunningham created Fabrications for MCDC in 1987 at the Northrop Auditorium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The work consists of 64 different movement phrases, which correspond to the 64 hexagrams found in I Ching, the Chinese book of chance. These phrases are mixed-up and combined to create a work that exemplifies Cunningham’s strong interest in chance and randomness. The flowing costumes are colorful, yet simple enough to focus attention on the movement. Fabrications highlights the strong, classical abilities necessary for Cunningham choreography, which the Ballet Lorraine dancers most definitely possess.

After Fabrications, the performance broke for an intermission, which gave the audience a chance to prepare for the enveloping experience of Sounddance. Cunningham described this work as “vigorous, fast, complex,” and as “a space observed under a microscope.” He does not exaggerate. The full experience captures your attention and draws you in until you are on the edge of your seat.

Sounddance was created after Cunningham spent nine weeks with the Paris Opera Ballet, and the influence is evident in multiple aspects of the piece. From the costuming to the partnering and the balletic movements, Cunningham takes the classical qualities of ballet and gives them his own modern twist. Even the luscious, golden backdrop is reminiscent of the billowing curtains that frame the stages of classical ballet. In this case, Cunningham turns the curtains into part of the movement. Dancers enter and exit through openings that seem invisible until they burst through them. The stage design becomes a living part of the performance, a characteristic very common in Cunningham choreography.

The most difficult part of the performance was trying to take it all in at once for the fullest experience possible. As a dancer, I tend to focus on one dancer or a single movement and watch every detail as it comes to life. While this is often enjoyable, for this performance I made sure to observe the entire production in order to comprehend the fullness of the work. This created an entirely different experience that integrated the rich gold color, the choreographed formations, the connections amongst dancers and their synchronicity. I was moved into a trancelike state that elevated the performance beyond what I expected.

CCN-Ballet Lorraine brought Merce Cunningham’s choreography to life at the MCA’s stage. The performance was co-presented by the Dance Center of Columbia College Chigago and complemented the exhibition Common Time that is on view through April 30 at the MCA. Information about the exhibition and programming can be found here.

To read the first article in this two-part series visit: New Survey Highlights Merce Cunningham's Collaborative Career.

Top image: Performance view, CCN-Ballet de Lorraine, Works by Merce Cunningham & Others, MCA Chicago. Photo: Nathan Keay.