by Brian Kubarycz
October 12, 2011
On Oct. 6-8, Repertory Dance Theater commenced its 2011-2012 season by presenting Vanguard. The program, a showcase of key works by groundbreaking choreographers, featured the work of Merce Cunningham and Yvonne Rainer.
Any repertory dance company will, by definition, perform works by established “classical” artists, much as the Utah Symphony is currently surveying the works of the legendary composer Igor Stravinsky. Consequently, one might have expected Vanguard to be a guaranteed crowd pleaser, or at least to offer something for (almost) everyone. However, such was not the case. Instead, RDT’s season opener presented those assembled with a suite of works conceived intentionally to violate the expectations and demands of audiences past and present.
Prior to the opening, a small squadron of UTA buses had advertised the event by displaying a billboard-sized portrait photo (“Do You Know This Man?”) of the elderly but imposing Cunningham, who died in 2009. This tactic might have manifested some considerable anxiety on the part of the company regarding the public’s lack of awareness of avant-garde choreography. However, the disappointing turnout at Friday night’s performance may in fact have reflected not local ignorance so much as a genuine rejection of more challenging forms of modern dance. Whatever the case, RDT’s presentation of Vanguard showed admirable courage and commitment to the company’s raison d’etre. It also gave the company’s dancers an opportunity to exhibit skills, moves and choreographic effects not frequently seen on stage, much less appreciated, in Utah.
The first piece of the night was Merce Cunninghams’ Scramble (1967). The program notes discussed Cunningham in terms of his potential relation to Abstract Expressionism and the Action Painters (Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Klein) of the New York School. This, however, is misleading. Scramble’s date, not to mention its actual content, establishes it as much closer to the Post-Expressionist works of painter Frank Stella (who designed the piece’s set and costumes) and the color-field paintings of The Washington School (Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis). Cunningham’s choreography, which favors stationary stances, falls and lunges as opposed to more flowing or heaving motions, seeks to forestall any possibility of audience investment in the interiority or feelings of individual dancers.