Life: A Love Letter to Merce Cunningham: Gandini Juggling – London International Mime Festival, Sadler’s Wells

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Director: Sean Gandini

When juggler extraordinaire Sean Gandini approached the Merce Cunningham Trust about using the choreographer’s work in his new piece, ex-member of the Merce Cunningham Company, Jennifer Goggans, agreed to a meeting. Goggans thought that she would be teaching Gandini and his company some of Cunningham’s trademark tilts and lilts. Instead, Gandini taught her to juggle, and she now appears with him in a juggling tribute to the legendary choreographer.

Such a set-up may sound absurd, even sacrilegious, but the evening is thoroughly absorbing, and breathtakingly elegant. It begins with some information as Gandini charmingly explains the differences between three, four and five ball juggling. A single orange ball in the hands of co-founder member Kati Ylä-Hokkala demonstrates how the throws are performed. Next, Gandini asks two more performers to dance a few of Cunningham’s steps, which are harder than they seem as often the choreographer insisted that the top half of the body moved to a different beat than the bottom half of the body. But Gandini, doesn’t stop here. In an outrageous manoeuvre, the performers must now dance Cunningham’s steps while jugging balls, discs and clubs.

Gandini’s company is divided between dancers who have become jugglers (like Goggans) and jugglers who have become dancers, but in this packed 70-minute performance it is impossible to tell them apart. Cunningham’s work was often busy and chaotic looking, with dancers spread across the stage, some even with their backs to the audience, performing their own moves. Music would play, but the dancers wouldn’t follow the beats of the music. The music was there to offer atmosphere not rhythm. Gandini’s Life faithfully follows this methodology.

Gandini suggests that his show quotes at least 25 Cunningham works, from the 1950s to his late work. Gandini’s jugglers such as Benjamin Beaujard have to juggle while doing a kind of hinge move, knees bent and back arched. At other times they must juggle five balls while tilting their heads this way and that or dancing cheeky little jigs across the stage. Sometimes, especially in the last piece, so much is going on – dancers juggle alone, in pairs and occasionally all together – that it seems that this must be improvised in some way. But Gandini, like Cunningham, has tightly choreographed everything. It’s a miracle that everyone remembers their steps, let alone keep their balls in the air.

The first part of the show is silent, with the sound of balls landing in the performers’ hands providing tempo, but for the rest, Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw is in charge of the soundtrack. Some of the music has been recorded while other sections of it are live. She builds a melancholy song using her voice, a violin and a loop machine, while at other times it sounds as if she is dialling through radio frequencies picking up snatches of John Cage (of course, Cunningham’s partner and collaborator), Laurie Anderson and Steve Reich. An Irish jig haunts her radio.

Juggling is so often seen as lowbrow, but in the Gandinis’ hands – literally their hands – it becomes art, refined and aesthetic. Who would have ever thought that juggling and Merce Cunningham would be a match made in heaven?

Runs until 15 January 2022

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