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DVD Review: Merce Cunningham Dance Company: Split Sides

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With over 65 years of work in modern dance, Merce Cunningham has largely been shaped by four discoveries: video/film, DanceForms computer software, the separation of music and the dance, and the use of chance operations. It is the latter that formulates the basis for Split Sides.

Capturing the modernist choreographer’s most sweeping application of chance operations to date, Split Sides gives the viewer the opportunity to get in on the action and “roll the dice” in terms of what performance he or she will partake in.

The dance piece is divided into two parts, hence the title, and each of those parts is brought to life with a host of options in set design, costumes, lighting, music, and the choreography itself. Interestingly, the order of these options is determined by an onstage dice roll prior to the performance in full view of the live audience. This presents 32 combinations of any performance of Split Sides.

While the DVD is quite inadequate in presenting the whole scale of Cunningham’s work, there still is a sense of unpredictability that makes it fun.

With two choreographic segments from Cunningham, added into the mix of options are two set designs by Robert Heishman and Catherine Yass, two lighting plots by James F. Ingalls, two sets of costumes by James Hall, and two original scores by Sigur Rós and Radiohead.

The music is hauntingly poignant, flawlessly suited to the movement of the dancers with clicks of electronic noise and spare sonic landscapes.

The two-disc set offers viewers a chance to experience alternate soundtracks, providing a total of four variations out of the 32 possibilities. Split Sides 45 is available for viewing with music by Sigur Rós followed by Radiohead or the other way around. Split Sides 46, the second performance of this collaboration, works the same way. There are also silent options available that add a new dynamic to the performance.

The dancers are extraordinary and their facility to correspond through movement is powerful. The uncertainty of the production must be difficult to deal with night after night, but each performer is extremely passionate and accomplished. There is a certain humanness to their movements that I appreciated, too, and the dancing was gripping with or without the musical accompaniments.

Split Sides, featuring the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, is an incredibly distinctive DVD set. Viewers certainly don’t need to know the ins and outs of modern dance in order to enjoy this imaginative, audacious, unique piece of art.

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