Merce Cunningham b. 1931
New York Times
March 8, 1987 DANCE: MERCE CUNNINGHAM'S 'SEPTET' By ANNA KISSELGOFF
THE Merce Cunningham Dance Company's season received another rich addition Friday night at the City Center when the company revived one of Mr. Cunningham's very early pieces, the 1953 ''Septet.'' Set to music by Erik Satie, the work has not been performed since 1964: the performance had the effect of a virtual premiere and was received as such.
''Septet,'' on a program with ''Doubles'' (danced a bit somnolently) and ''Pictures,'' proved as delightful as it was revealing, historically. It is not a major work, but it has a clarity of movement that matches the clarity of sound so important to Satie. Mr. Cunningham has since created more complex and sophisticated pieces. Never, however, has he been so pure. ''Septet'' is a rarity in the Cunnigham canon. It will surprise a great many people. It is reportedly the last piece Mr. Cunningham choreographed along traditional lines before he embarked upon the regular use of chance procedures as a compositional device. It is also set to ''real'' music rather than the controversial sound scores now common in the Cunningham troupe.
Satie was a gentle avant-gardist in his own time, and both the gentleness and experimental nature of the choreography pay him homage. Satie, like Marcel Duchamp, was especially important to John Cage, Mr. Cunningham's longtime musical advisor, and Mr. Cunningham himself has turned to Satie as inspiration on numerous occasions. In the 1960's, ''Nocturne,'' one of his most beautiful dances, was set to Satie; a few years later, the French composer's ''Socrate'' was the springboard for another work.
Satie's ''Trois Morceaux en Forme de Poire'' was played on two pianos on this occasion by Joseph Kubera and Nils Vigeland. It is difficult to imagine that Satie was once accused of writing thin music. Here, it sounds positively rich and rumbling. And perhaps the reason ''Septet'' may yet look startling is that the dancing often moves against the music - stillness against the aural ripples. Simplicity is hard to achieve, but Mr. Cunningham achieves it.
There are seven sections to match the music, but only six dancers -Chris Komar, Dennis O'Connor, Karen Radford, Kristy Santimyer, Robert Swinston and Carol Teitelbaum. Remy Charlip's original costumes are soothingly pastel.
''Septet'' is a plotless suite of several dances, but at its origins it carried program notes that associated each section with titles like garden, music hall, teahouse, playground, morgue, ''distance'' and ''the end.'' Mr. Cunningham was said to have been concerned with joy and sorrow, and an overriding theme of ''eros.''
These connotations, if they were ever visible, are at best subliminal in this production. We see instead dancers who look suddenly very young as they shyly shake hands or peer over a shoulder. As early as 1953, the year of his company's official debut, Mr. Cunningham was organizing stage space without a central focus and creating an off-center look to the body that made it look interestingly askew.
Those who assert that he has become balletic in recent years will note that much of the movement includes steps such as bourees and chaines.
The initial moment, with the three women standing on half toe or in profile with arms curved or out, radiates a neo-classical image that Mr. Swinston then shatters with an open-mouthed silent shout and a superbly rendered bumptious solo. The duets and quartets that follow are definite encounters, increasingly quick until the couples form a diagonal, the women tilted downward by the men and raised into overt embraces. This hint of passion is resolved in a classical image: Mr. Swinston pulling his three Graces behind him. The fleeting turbulence subsides; all six dancers form a chain that breaks apart. Miss Radford, arching over, walks backward into the wings guided by Mr. Swinston. For no reason (or was it ''eros''?) the image of a centaur flashed through this viewer's mind.