Dance review: Merce Cunningham’s ‘Roaratorio’ at Disney Hall

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A lot of people in contemporary dance feel secretly relieved that choreographer Merce Cunningham is no longer around. Yes, yes, Cunningham, who died July 2009 at age 90, was a beloved father-figure and mentor in the modern dance world. But through his restless creativity and pioneering experiments with dance structure, space, sequencing, collaboration, video, computers and motion-capture technology, he had a way of making everyone else’s work look conservative and back-dated.

It’s infinitely easier to pay tribute to such a master than compete with him -- or, sometimes, to experience the outer reaches of his art.


Case in point: the brand-new reconstruction of his “Roaratorio” this weekend in Walt Disney Concert Hall. Part of an ambitious two-year “Legacy Tour” before the Merce Cunningham Dance Company disbands, this hour-long piece from 1983 had originally been performed in only a handful of engagements and not seen in nearly a quarter-century. Could it still be a challenge, an adventure, a new angle on the unorthodox splendor of Cunningham dancing? It could -- but also arguably is an exasperating problem.

Twenty-seven years ago, it represented an unusual Cunningham project because it used a preexisting score: John Cage’s epic “Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake,” which incorporated Cage’s reading of a radically manipulated text derived from James Joyce’s novel, plus the performances of Irish musicians and more than 2,000 taped sound effects recorded in places mentioned by Joyce. A vast Irish soundscape of extraordinary power and even ferocity, it was played and mixed live at the Cunningham performances, with Cage and the musicians adding their energies and activities to the event.

At Disney Hall on Friday, however, a multi-track recording left the words submerged, the Irish music only fitfully evident and the sound effects relentlessly dominant. Worse, under these circumstances the score as a whole seemed generalized -- a loop of titanic, orgasmic murk -- against which 15 dancers moving in purposeful, circumspect patterns appeared hopelessly minuscule.

OK. Forget the recording for the moment and focus on the choreography, restaged by Patricia Lent and assisted by Robert Swinston, who danced Cunningham’s role on Friday. In his solo, all the shifting points of focus, changes of direction, weightless footwork and arrowy gestural extensions reminded us of what a brilliantly mercurial dancer Cunningham always was.

Although wildly dissimilar in scale, the music and dance of “Roaratorio” overlapped in their transformation of Irish folklore. Much of the choreography re-imagined step-dancing, jigs and reels as though those forms had been torn apart, their components shuffled and then assembled in bold yet intricate new arrangements of buoyant heel-and-toe combinations (the arms inactive, Irish-style) and playful jumps. Dylan Crossman turned these passages into personal showpieces, but everyone took to the movement-brogue valiantly.

Brisk line-dances and celebratory (if almost courtly) passages for six or seven couples evoked the sense of date-night in some alternative-universe Dublin. But there was also plenty of time for Cunningham’s familiar sliding side-steps with sudden tilts of the head and his balletic supported extensions.


And, in the work’s 21st-century premiere, the company looked like it could go on forever. However, “Roaratorio” never achieved the profound resonance of the Cunningham anniversary season at UCLA in 2003 or the sustained dazzle of his collaboration with Radiohead at the Music Center in 2005. It remained more than a curiosity but less than a triumph.

Still, every so often its juxtaposition of sight and sound generated a kind of potent quasi-narrative: the sense of people dancing happily with one another despite the threatening din swirling around them. That’s a story of ongoing Irish heroism and one Americans have recently taken to heart. What’s more, even the annoyances spoke about our lives. After all, who doesn’t try to tune out the high-pressure clamor all around us and target what’s fun, beautiful and satisfying?

“Roaratorio” didn’t exactly show us the way, but it isolated the issues at maximum volume. And who else in contemporary dance gets even that far?

-- Lewis Segal

Formerly The Times’ dance critic, Segal is a freelance arts writer based in Hollywood and Barcelona.

‘Roaratorio,’ Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, 2 p.m. Sunday; $25 to $105; or (213) 972-0711



‘Roaratorio’ restored, coming to Disney Hall