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Arts & Entertainment Preview - July 1999

Dance and Theater
B Y   N A N C Y   D A L V A   &   J O H N   I S T E L

Merce Turns 80

   Merce Cunningham

Merce Cunningham is unaffected and direct and modest, and he dislikes any kind of fuss, particularly about his birthday. He is a forward-looking person who is always surprising. In fact, Cunningham has been surprising for so many years -- more than fifty -- that his perpetual insistence on change and chance is in itself somehow reassuring. With so many of his collaborators and peers in the art world now gone, he is in what is probably to him the unenviable position of being the senior standard-bearer for all of modernism. This means more, perhaps, in dance than in any other art form, because dance is by its nature reliant on the constant surveillance of its maker to be truly authentic. Cunningham has long since freed dance of all its conventional moorings and mores -- he makes his work without music, without decor or costume, and without narrative. All but the last are added at the first performance. More or less singlehandedly, he has kept his evanescent art in pace with the other arts of the twentieth century. Now he is busy whisking it into the twenty-first, by means of the computer. (He is already a master of video and film techniques.) Among the works that the Lincoln Center Festival '99 is presenting this month, during The Merce Cunningham Dance Company's performances at The New York State Theater (July 21, 23-5; Ticketmaster, 212-307-4100), is BIPED, a multimedia collaboration. Also scheduled are a new piece for Mikhail Baryshnikov; the first New York performances of Pond Way (decor by Roy Lichtenstein, music by Brian Eno); appearances by The New York City Ballet in a revival of Summerspace (scintillating pointillist decor by Robert Rauschenberg, music by Morton Feldman); and the marvelous dances called Rune, Sounddance, Ground Level Overlay, and Windows. The Lincoln Center Festival '99 thus presents the dance event of the turn of the century -- the Cunningham Celebration. Happy Birthday, Merce! --N.D.

Ireland's Chekhov

Brian Friel  

From the sophisticated comedy of Sheridan and Wilde to Boucicault's melodrama, Shaw's social satire, and Samuel Beckett's endgame absurdism, the wee isle off the west coast of Britain has provided more than its share of the world's theatrical sparkle during the past two centuries. Lately the Irish invasion has been particularly widespread, with plays by Conor McPherson, Marina Carr, Billy Roche, Sebastian Barry, and the Irish pretender Martin McDonagh occupying U.S. stages. It's only fitting, therefore, that this summer Lincoln Center Festival '99 refocuses attention on the current granddaddy of Irish drama, Brian Friel, and celebrates his seventieth birthday with a trio of imported productions. Friel, Tyrone-born and Donegal-based, is descended from writers like Synge and O'Casey, whose plays are determinedly rooted in their country's idiosyncratic rural spirit, character, and language. Although Friel made his Broadway debut more than thirty years ago, his lyrical evocations of the fictional village of Ballybeg are most familiar to Americans from Dancing at Lughnasa, recently made into a film starring Meryl Streep. Lincoln Center Festival '99 offers a cross-section of his career: the venerable Abbey Theatre stages The Freedom of the City (an investigation into the personal costs of civil strife during “the Troubles,” last seen on Broadway in 1974); the Abbey's fellow Dublin institution, the Gate, brings The Aristocrats and Friel's adaptation of Uncle Vanya in an award-winning production directed by Ben Barnes. The last is particularly apt, because more than the work of any other writer, Friel's has an affinity with Chekhov's. His characters' chipper but invariably unfulfilled aspirations become enveloped in a melancholy as thick as an Innisfree fog. --J.I.

Music in the Eyre

   Jane Eyre

A few devotees of Victorian literature may become neurasthenic at the news that Jane Eyre has been made into a Broadway-sized musical. Its U.S. premiere is at La Jolla Playhouse, July 6-August 22. Some might fear a postmodern, feminist-literary approach focusing on the madwoman in the attic; some might prefer such an approach. Others would like to see well enough left alone. Many, however, will be mesmerized by the theatrical world created from Charlotte Brontë's gothic romance by the L.A. songwriter Paul Gordon and his collaborator, John Caird, who are returning the story to its proper melodramatic roots, using Gordon's pop-ballad melodies to enhance mood and drama. One reason for optimism is the track record of the creative team. Caird, the director and co-librettist, has won Tony Awards for his work on two adaptations of nineteenth-century novels -- Les Misérables and the Royal Shakespeare Company's acclaimed The Life and Times of Nicholas Nickleby. The production designer John Napier and the costumer Andreane Neofitou both worked with Caird on Les Mis. Chris Parry made a previous pre-Broadway foray at La Jolla Playhouse, when he created his Tony-winning lighting design for The Who's Tommy there. Even English majors will take guilty pleasure in soaring Rochester-Jane romantic duets and a first-person narration delivered -- in a brilliant stroke -- by the ensemble as a sort of psychic chorus. --J.I.

Nancy Dalva's essays appear in the magazine 2wice.

John Istel is a senior editor at Stagebill.

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Photo Credits -- Merce Cunningham: Annie Leibovitz/Contact. Jane Eyre: Cylla Von Tiedmann. Brian Friel: Bobbie Hanvey.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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