• Cunningham's 'Ocean' recreated by the VCA students. Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti.
    Cunningham's 'Ocean' recreated by the VCA students. Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti.
  • A scene from the second half of the program, showing the students' choreographic response. Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti.
    A scene from the second half of the program, showing the students' choreographic response. Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti.

In Melbourne, at the Victorian College of the Arts, an interesting anniversary was commemorated this month by the students of the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music: that of the premiere of Merce Cunningham's seminal work, Ocean, 30 years ago.

This landmark creation was first performed by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at Cirque Royal in Brussels in 1994. It was novel and it was big. Conceived for 15 dancers, and 90 minutes long, it was Cunningham's last collaboration with his creative partner, John Cage (who died before the work was realised).  It was performed in the round, with the audience encircling the stage and an orchestra of 112 musicians encircling the audience, so they were "immersed" in the sound. As was typical with Cunningham, the choreography was based both on chance and on design: he used the random principles of the I Ching but he also intricately mapped out the stage and created 128 distinct movement phrases. The music and set design were created separately and added later.

The music was in two parts, with Cage's musical ideas and poetry channelled, along with underwater sounds, into an electronic score by David Tudor for the second half. Along with design by Marsha Skinner, Ocean was an extraordinary fusion of the now legendary creative minds that made up the MCDC.

The VCA students did not quite have these huge resources at their disposal, but they did have the expertise of Melissa Toogood, the Australian MCDC alumna who is now the official stager for the Merce Cunningham Trust. She was invited by Carol Brown, the VCA's Head of Dance, to do an arrangement of the original choreography for the Bachelor of Fine Arts and Music students. During her own career, Brown had had "the honour", in 2006, of working with young artists in the UK to create a response to the work through London's Dance Umbrella and she was keen to bring the same experience to young artists in Australia. Ocean has been recreated in various forms in other parts of the world but this is the first time it has been performed here.

The performance was held in the VCA's Martyn Myer Arena, part of the VCA's Stables Art Studios, in June. The Ocean arrangement took up the first half of the program. The production team of Alice Huxtable, Timothy Rutty and Viv Hargreaves, from the VCA Bachelor of Fine Arts (Production),  reproduced the designs after the Skinner originals. The daunting responsibility of recreating the music was taken on by a single musician, Cameron Deyell, who performed live on the side of the arena. Brown had hoped to engage the Melbourne Conservatorium musicians to play, but unfortunately was unable to secure the rights to the score. "There was some interest in this and certainly I would be interested in future opportunities to work with the orchestra," she says.

The second half of the program was a response to the first, choreographed by the students. Performed in the same arena setting, their creation was markedly more fluid and more communicative than the Cunningham original. The movement was more organic in nature, with greater use of massed, sculptural forms; it was less regimented, with darker lighting, and a sense that the "Ocean'"of the title had a bleaker, environmental message. Cunningham's choreography, by contrast, was both more classical and more abstract, with upright posture and held poses, and the choreography (though not the design) had little obvious reference to the title. Both halves employed the original idea of clocks at the side of the stage, ticking down the seconds: as soon as the time ran out, the dancing stopped. Originally used as cues for the performers; in 2024, with the looming climate crisis, their presence in both halves had a more ominous implication.

Ocean is a milestone work and this was a milestone experience, bringing together today's dancers in respectful partnership with their mentors, in a performance that brought together the past and the present.








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