It was a monumental undertaking, “the biggest, most complex version we have ever done,” said Merce Cunningham at the time. The remounting of Cunningham and John Cage’s Ocean in September 2008, at the bottom of Rainbow Quarry in Waite Park, 70 minutes northwest of Minneapolis/St. Paul, was an event for the dance-history books. Captured on film by Charles Atlas, Ocean, the documentary, aired in September at the Walker Art Center and will be shown January 10 in New York at Baryshnikov Arts Center.
Ocean debuted in 1994 in Brussels and was performed several times on proscenium and circular stages. But for the 2008 version, which Cunningham, then 89, mounted and watched from his wheelchair, the dancers were sited on a stage erected 150 feet below ground at the bottom of the quarry, surrounded by 1,200 audience members (each of the four performances were sold-out) and 150 musicians.
The 360-degree configuration formed a dramatic structure of three concentric circles, the structure Cage originally conceived for the piece. As such, recalled Philip Bither, performance curator at the Walker Art Center (one of the work’s presenters), the production of Ocean was the most “ambitious and audacious in the Walker Art Center’s history.” Another of Cage and Cunningham’s longtime collaborators, filmmaker Charles Atlas, was there, of course, documenting the work for posterity.
Atlas’ film had its world premiere almost two years later to the day, September 15, 2010, at the Walker. While Atlas initially planned to film the 90-minute dance work using five cameras in order to create a five-channel installation piece, rain during many of the performances scotched that idea. He also considered shooting two different films: One would simply document the performance; in the other, he’d cinematically interpret the work.
Instead, he made one 100-minute film. “An epic,” he called it, at its screening. The result is a largely straightforward document of the performance as it happened, in real time. The large digital clock, ever-present during the live work as it counted down the minutes to zero, is in nearly every frame of the film as well.
Atlas opens his film with close-ups of granite and expansive images of the quarry, with shots of stagehands assembling the platform and oboes tuning. He inserts split screens from time to time, which juxtapose one dancer’s pose or phrasing with another’s. About 50 minutes into the film, Atlas homes in on details of the dancers’ bodies in motion. Throughout the film, David Tudor’s electronic score pings, rumbles and twangs with the sounds of what could be seals barking, waves crashing or whales singing.
Ocean lacks the cinematic innovation of Cunningham and Atlas’ pioneering “film dance” collaborations, which occurred primarily from 1974 through 1983 (when Atlas was the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s filmmaker-in-residence). As the last film Atlas made with Cunningham before his death, however, Ocean captures the performance of Cunningham’s monumental work, and pays tribute to the culmination of their 40-year collaboration.
Camille LeFevre is a dance critic and arts journalist based in Minneapolis/St. Paul.
Photo: MCDC’s Andrea Weber at Rainbow Quarry (by Cameron Wittig, courtesy of Walker Art Center)