van(guardians) of dance history; a sort of review

Tonight RDT presented Vanguard, their 2011-2012 season opener. Part of RDT’s mission has always been to present dances by seminal choreographers that showcase important moments in dance history. Adding Scramble to the roster was an important step in that mission — particularly after Cunningham’s fairly recent death and the pending completion of his company’s final tour.

RDT has taken great pains to contextualize Cunningham’s Scramble as well as the two pieces by Yvonne Rainer (Trio A &Chair/Pillow) that the company performs. These efforts are incredibly important, especially for RDT. Their panel discussions on the choreographers as well as extensive program notes offer insight about why audiences should care about these older works and elucidate the contributions each made to dance history. From these “vanguards,” audiences and new choreographers might add to their bank of ideas: ways to work collaboratively with artists of many disciplines, new choreographic methods, notions of narrative, or use of props.

Within the context of these artists as pioneers of their time I do find that one thing was missing — the fact that both Rainer and Cunningham went on to be avant-garde well beyond these “famous” works. Cunningham  afterall was not only known for abstraction and chance procedure but also for being one of the first choreographers to use i-pods and commission popular bands like Radiohead for music well after his eligibility for the AARP. Rainer departed dance to make very well-known films and then returned to dance with works premiered as late as 2008 (

These facts only enhance the context through which one might view the RDT concert. Audiences can then see the ways in which artists continue to break traditions even as their career advances while simultaneously considering which artists might become the next generations avant-garde.

These facts also ask curatorial questions about the ways in which the avant-garde could be presented. Is it more relevant to watch Rainer & Cunningham side by side because they shared a decade? Or is it of equal benefit to dance history to watch Rainer’s work beside her films? Or Cunningham’s work alongside Martha Graham to better demonstrate the traditions he had once performed and promised to break? Is it any more reasonable to consider the ways in which Helen Tamiris or Loie Fuller were also vanguards though their repertory may now be longer accepted in a dance canon?

At the end of the evening the dances were performed to the letter. The Cunningham work showed the technical prowess you might expect but also showed dancers really seeing one another and forming relationships on stage through even the most abstract material. Trio A went through almost all of it’s possible incarnations — a silent solo, simultaneous silent solos and raucous combinations to music, it was easy to imagine why and how the piece has been performed so many times in so many places. Chair/Pillow made evidence many techniques of the Judson Dance Theater including performing as though you were casually showing something to a friend.

After those three works RDT also moved through context into new ground.  They offered RDT dancers the opportunity to develop movement sections that were strung together through chance procedures and eventually set into a clear score despite the illusion that James Larsen (the lighting designer) would actually call cues from stage or that an i-pod in the corner could be changed at random.

The piece, called Gamut, incited various responses. The first was to know which RDT dancer had made which section, it was fascinating to guess who may have developed each part and to consider RDT performers in a way we might not always see them — as choreographers. It made me see the value in trying your hand at another choreographer’s tools and find ways to see your movement that you might not otherwise (Karinne Keithley Syers writes about this in an essay in the upcoming performance journal). Further, it made me long for the “chance” to have been more in earnest and rather than stringing the works together in a (lovely) complete way for them to truly happen in the moment without the artifice of a lit cyc or perfect phrasing. Perhaps this longing displays what a vanguard Cunningham truly was, that his tactics used elsewhere only remind us why his tactics were so good.

Ashley Anderson