“Here are all the parts of myself together, always changing, unstable and fragmented. I am dealing with contradictions – capability and collapse, wanting to hide and wanting to be seen. I am undefended and undefeated”
Some people like to know exactly what they're going to get. I'd suggest those people don't go to the theatre.
One of the key components of the theatre experience is the possibility of the unknown. The idea that it's a space for question and exploration, regardless of the outcome. This kind of work takes bravery as its often autobiographical. Method in the truest of senses. It takes artists like Jules Cunningham who are willing to walk their walk, regardless of the possible hostility and subsequent attacks.
Cunningham identifies as non-binary, uses the pronouns they/them and approaches their work through a queer perspective. This is enough for some people to disengage at the get-go. Their loss I say. Truth is where the real work resides. An individual's take on their truth, even if it differs from yours.
Julie Cunningham & Company present two works in this double bill: m/y-kovsky and fire bird. Both using Western scores, both works created through queer questioning and embodiment.
m/y-kovsky is “a response to Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No.1 (first movement)”. Originally devised in 2019 it poses numerous questions: “…how we might relate to these works today; how we can disturb and rearrange hierarchy through a queer reading. How can we make this music make sense through our bodies? How does it change us?”
In this work, in fact, throughout the whole evening, Cunningham defines themselves as a present-day Denishawn (a hybrid of Ruth St Denis and Ted Shawn – modern dance pioneers of the 20th century). Music visualization is the name of the game. And what potential it gives a choreographer and their dancers. To quote the choreomusicologist of choreomusicologists, Stephanie Jordan, “Music visualization were [are] pieces that… exploited the idea of dance content illustrating musical form,” and that's definitely what I saw and felt.
The piece starts with Cunningham and Eleanor Perry having a quiet, intimate moment with three rolls of paper and an apple. They roll and unroll, tear with keen precision and scribble notes to each other with knowing glances. It's a comforting intro but also a little abstract. Then the rest of the cast – Yu-Chien Cheng, Owen Ridley-DeMonick and Stephen Quildan – join Perry (as Cunningham makes a sharp-ish exit) and off we go into Tchaikovsky visualization utopia.
The movement throughout is purposeful and sparing. Nothing is unnecessarily decorative but that doesn't make it disinteresting. In fact, it actually allows for a clearer, deeper understanding of what's potentially happening. The movement language has many traits within it: the pedestrian approach of the Judson Dance Theater collective; the bend, tilt, fast footwork, and dynamic directional changes of Merce Cunningham; the natural phenomenon of flocking birds; and the court style dance of Louis XIV's Versailles. The choreography also allows for a keen sense of connection between the dancers, executing handheld running chains through space, and moments of proximity with hands in each other's pockets. They also often make eye contact and acknowledge each other throughout the dance – it feels visceral in action.
It's encouraging to see Cunningham, and consequently a contemporary dance maker, not shy away from music. In fact, it's the axis. Very often music is deemed unfashionable in modern dance circles, but Cunningham, like de Keersmaeker, isn't buying into that hype, thank god. Cunningham is also giving the bourrée a contemporary dance renaissance moment. They use fast, slight steps, jogs and runs as ways to physicalise the score.
Very often it feels like the staves are actually off the paper and vertically up in the space channelled through the dancers' bodies. Two staves of different rhythmical patterning danced in juxtaposition simultaneously. Moments of melodic, movement conversation accessed through question-and-answer style phrasing. It's complex, layered, rigorous, beautiful work. The cast are committed and eclectic, but I could watch Perry forever. She exudes experience, authority, and kindness when dancing. Very engaging. And it's all executed in pleather dungarees. The costume design by Cunningham feeling concurrently utilitarian and French & Saunders contemporary dance sketch territory.
The second half is Cunningham's solo creation fire bird. A “queer and personal interpretation of the iconic Stravinsky score” where “Cunningham acknowledges the part this score has played in Western dance history, and in their history”.
I saw one of the first performances of fire bird in Hackney Wick at the Yard Theatre as part of the NOW FESTIVAL in January 2020. And as a piece it travels well. Choreographically its connected to the space it's performed in, which is connected to the set design that it houses.
Props feature again – a microphone for subtle humming, some trainers worn in the latter half to change the mode – though the postmodern (now red and white) dungarees stay put throughout. All these facets suggest more of an installation experience rather than a textbook dance piece in theatre execution.
The overall structure of the work is tangible and clear. Corridors of light define spatial focuses. The theatre back wall used as a backdrop and physical partner. A linear web of red string cutting through the space causing spatial tension and acting as a type of barrier, climbing frame, and support for Cunningham at different times. There's a video interlude at one point featuring JD Samson, an American musician, producer, songwriter and DJ. Cunningham uses this moment to lay still as Samson eats an apple (a Michel Fokine reference?) and scat sings along to Stravinsky's score. I still feel none the wiser, but it definitely added fuel to the installation fire.
Movement-wise, Cunningham offers contradictions – fluid, easy phrases with effortless kicks full of swing dynamic. And then disconnected, uncomfortable, gestural passages like the choreographic version of a buffering screen or video. All are still intensely connected to the shape of the score though, both rhythmically and melodically as seen earlier.
I don't know Cunningham personally but having seen them around I get the feeling there's a shyness. This assumption makes watching them in a 42-minute solo something of a privilege. I don't regard them as weak, but I can sometimes sense that being the centre of attention doesn't come naturally. That's also why seeing their emotional development throughout the piece feels very affecting. At the end Cunningham is placed centre front like the conductor of their own work and the Stravinsky score. Simple, repetitive arm movements embodying the totality of their kinesphere suggest an openness, a readiness. A clear, physical authority supporting the emotional strength that's been found. It takes us back to Cunningham's quote from the beginning of this review, but with more gravitas in certain directions. More wanting to be seen than wanting to hide. More undefeated than undefended. The power of dance. The power of one's own dance. Truth to power.