Dancers: Kimberley Bartosik, Thomas Caley, Michael Cole, Emma Diamond, Jean Freebury, Frederic Gafner, China Laudision, Mathew Mohr, Banu Ogan, Jared Phillips, Glen Rumsey, Jeannie Steele, Robert Swinston, Cheryl Therrien, Jennifer Weaver. Reviewed May 18, 1994. Running time: 90 MIN.
Asked in an interview about his choreography, young dance star Mark Morris gave the following reply: “There are four different dance techniques — ballet in several different flavors, Humphrey/Limon, Graham and Cunningham, and that’s it. There aren’t any others.” On the evidence of Cunningham’s “Ocean,” that tribute remains as richly deserved as ever.
“Ocean,” the 75-year-old dance great’s latest offering, is based on mythologist Joseph Campbell’s hunch that James Joyce’s next work would have been about water and the ocean. Joyce’s influence pervades “Ocean”: “Finnegan’s Wake” was divided into 17 sections, “Ulysses” into 18, and Cunningham has divided “Ocean,” their imagined successor, into 19 discrete parts.
One of Cunningham’s major innovations has been to introduce the idea of the total independence of choreography, sound and visual effects, a feature of his work with composer and longtime collaborator John Cage dating back to the 1960s. For “Ocean,” the music, choreography and set design were all conceived separately, with little shared understanding beyond the title and length of the piece, and were brought together just two days before its world premiere. An unusual way of working, certainly, and unlikely to please those who favor a more traditional relationship between music and dance. But in this case, the element of chance suits Cunningham’s purpose well.
Following ideas sketched out by Cage, who died in 1992, Cunningham presents the dance in the center of a circular space, with the audience surrounding the dancers. A 112-piece, conductorless orchestra is distributed around the rim of the auditorium, so that the audience is, in turn, encircled by the musicians and their music. Interpreting Cage’s ideas, composer Andrew Culver uses tuneless bursts of horns and of strings, layered to convey, alternately, stormy and calm seas.
There’s also an electronic score by David Tudor, made up of recordings of sea-related sounds: icebergs melting in the sea, solar sounds used for measuring water depth, seal noises and the sound of surf. These recorded sounds are both surprising and unsettling, and complement the circular structures Cunningham has designed for his dancers. Working with a computer, Cunningham has created movements of great complexity and beauty operating within “circular spaces,” some of which appear to defy gravity and the limits of the human body.
For those who prefer a conventional narrative and relationship between music and dance, “Ocean” is likely to provide little relief. Nevertheless, Cunningham and company have created an intriguing 90-minute spectacle that immerses the audience in the sounds and movements of the underwater world.