Light Industry: Charles Atlas's Torse
Tuesday, January 24 2012, 19h
155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn, 11222 New York
If there can be said to be a subject of Torse, Merce Cunningham’s remarkable and remarkably difficult 1976 dance, it is the torso. But though every imaginable position of the back and backbone is in evidence, the torso is here as much a point of departure as it is an object of inquiry. (Indeed, the dance taxed every element of the body: “My calves were in contraction for about three years,” said Ellen Cornfield, a dancer who was part of its original cast.)
Charles Atlas’s 1977 film of Torse is an achievement in itself, a significant example of Atlas and Cunningham’s unique approach using film or video to “see” choreography. Atlas shot the dance with three 16mm cameras over the course of three days at the University of Washington, where the company was then in residence. Two mobile cameras captured close-ups, while a single stationary camera was set up for long shots. Atlas and Cunningham manned the mobile cameras while a technician handled the static camera, and the results were edited by Atlas into a single, two-screen film that was originally shown via a now all-but-extinct dual-interlock 16mm projection system.
The fifty-five-minute work features music by pioneering composer Maryanne Amacher and costumes by the company’s longtime designer, Mark Lancaster. As was typical in Cunningham’s practice, the choreography and sound were made separately, so that any relationship between music and movement is serendipitous. Torse is also notable as an instance of Cunningham’s use of chance operations; the choreography comprises sixty-four distinct phrases, and the floor space is divided into sixty-four squares—a reference to the number of hexagrams in the I Ching. Cunningham created separate “space charts” and “movement charts” and tossed coins to determine the combinations for the ten dancers (Cornfield, Karole Armitage, Lisa Fox, Meg Harper, and Robert Kovich are among those who appear in the film). The result is, as Arlene Croce once described it, “monomaniacally urgent.” That, and something else: one felicitous decision after another, a sublime study in the intersection of rigor and contingency.