It is with great pomp and with two of its major pieces that the Opera Ballet celebrates the centenary of the birth of the American choreographer Merce Cunningham. First by taking over its Summerspace, then by bringing Exchange to the company's directory. Post-modern dance As early as the 1940s, Merce Cunningham revolutionized the codes of dance, laying the foundations of post-modern dance. By introducing chance into his creations, freeing himself from narration, dissociating dance, music and scenography, the choreographer has transformed movement into pure emotion. And put the gesture back at the center of everything, as if to give dance its freedom and autonomy. This did not prevent Cunningham from associating other disciplines and aggregating various talents, among the greatest of the avant-garde of his time: composer John Cage, neo-dadaist painters precursors of Pop art Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, musicians Morton Feldman and David Tudor, in the credits of this anniversary program. Lyric dance “A Lyric Dance”, the subtitle of Summerspace, created in 1958, is evocative of the great poetic dimension of this piece taken up by the Ballet de l'Opéra and concentrates the essence of Cunningham's work. Here the dance is no longer frontal: the six bodies of dancers, men and women, building space. Behind them, a stage background signed Robert Rauschenberg, a colored canvas whose pointillistic motifs are reproduced on the performers' tights. On the other hand, it is the first time that the Ballet Lyonnais has performed Exchange, created in 1978 in New York, with decorations by the painter Jasper Johns. And it is here the concept of repetition that prevails, half of the dancers performing a series of gestures then taken up by the other half and then by the ensemble, in an order and random configurations that recall in their principle certain variations of the composer John Cage.
Summerspace is indicative of Cunningham's unique collaborative method, in which Feldman composed the score, Rauschenberg designed the décor, and Cunningham choreographed independently from each other. Together, the movement, music and décor give the effect of a balmy, summer day. Dressed in painted leotards, the dancers move about the stage in sudden bursts of speed and suspensions, zigzagging every which way, like flying creatures. The delicate music, at times sounds like bubbles of water rising to the surface, and at others, with a muffled rumble in the bass, like distant thunder.
Divided into three parts, Exchange began with half of the company in the first part, the other half in the second, and the entire company closing out the third. When asked about his inspiration for this piece, Cunningham said, “I've often been struck by the idea of recurrence, ideas, movements, inflections coming back in different guises, never the same; it's always a new space and a changed moment in time. So I decided to use it in Exchange.” Cunningham used chance operations to create the order of movements for each section, and again to decide what movements would reoccur in the second and third sections. Whenever a series of movements were repeated, they would occur in a different context, in a different space and time, with different dancers. Unlike several of Cunningham's outdoor, nature pieces, Exchange had an urban milieu. The décor and costumes were by Jasper Johns, featuring gritty grays, draping the stage in colors of soot and grime.