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DVD Review: Merce Cunningham Dance Company Park Avenue Armory Event

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The work of the late choreographer Merce Cunningham, who passed away in 2009, was well documented by videographer Charles Atlas. His work can be found on Microcinema’s three-disc set Merce Cunningham Dance Company: Robert Rauschenberg Collaborations. Atlas shot dancers in static, uninterrupted takes, and this theatrical simplicity captured sets and costumes in a controlled if somewhat clinical setting. In motion picture terms, Atlas’s work sometimes felt more like a document than art.

Perhaps a better tribute to an artist who threw the I Ching and thrived on serendipity is Microcinema’s release of the 3-DVD set Merce Cunningham Dance Company Park Avenue Armory Event . The surviving company performed six pieces across three stages in the round in the Park Avenue Armory’s drill hall. The event took place in the days before New Year’s Eve 2011, and the resulting video captures the spectacle that rang out the old year and sent off one of the great choreographers.

The filmmakers convey the excitement of that performance by taking an approach far from the clinical work of Atlas. Two camera teams operating fourteen cameras filmed the event in a variety of angles, alternating distant views of the action appearing on all three stages, with close ups that focus on the featured dancers on a single stage. In other words, cinema.

The documentary begins with behind the scenes excitement: close-ups of the printed program, shots of taxis depositing attendees and moving away into an artfully blurred Manhattan nightscape. This approach reveals more of the art by sometimes looking away from it.

The first disc is an edited one-hour summation of the Park Avenue shows, but two generous bonus discs provide both single shot versions of each if the pieces performed as well as bonus repertory performances from the tour. These last include footage shot by Charles Atlas, which are a starkly academic contrast to the main event. These repertory excerpts include the challenging “CRWDSPCR,” a piece that demands a dynamic visual approach. The static camera that Atlas points at the dancers record the work but do not engage with it. I’m glad I have Atlas’s dance videos on my DVD shelf, but when I want to watch some Merce Cunningham, I’ll put on the Park Avenue Armory Event.

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About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.