Tuesday Editor’s Pick: Torse (1977)

by on January 18, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Tues Jan 24 at 7:00 at Light Industry [Program & Tix]
Cinephiles, obscurantists, romantics, conceptualists, new media nerds, hipsters, hustlers, theory-jockeys, radicals, and rentiers—


All can rejoice! LIGHT INDUSTRY IS BACK!


“We’re excited to have a real, long-term lease,” Ed Halter said back in June, “because up until now, all our spaces have been donated affairs, and thereby somewhat tenuous. We’ll also be able to use the space as an office and work out of it.”


155 Freeman Street, which Light Industry will be sharing with Triple Canopy and The Public School, is (finally) open for business. To kick things off, Triple Canopy is holding a marathon reading of Gertrude Stein’s screwball comedy The Making of Americans.


Then, Tuesday, January 17th, Light Industry will be playing Torse, Charles Atlas’s 1977 film of Merce Cunningham’s dance piece.
Check out these excerpts from Atlas’s Hail the New Puritan, starring Michael Clark and set, amazingly enough, to the post-punk outfit The Fall. Major Merce Cunningham influence here (the choreographer attended when it screened at Lincoln Center 5 years ago):



Little has been written about Atlas’s film, a split-screen rarity.


Writing in the New York Times about a 2007 performance of “Torse”, Alastair MaCaulay:

In the 1976 “Torse” Mr. Cunningham drove his dancers to master footwork and legwork of unprecedented difficulty. Ms. Cornfield, a strong dancer, said on Tuesday, “My calves were in contraction for about three years.”


… a heroic trio from “Torse” (two men, one woman) showed innumerable uses of time and space, the dancers facing every which way at different points, sometimes all on one side or all on the other, sometimes partnering close, sometimes far apart and in different rhythms.


Roger Copeland, in Merce Cunningham: The Modernizing of Modern Dance, said of the Atlas movie:

The film version of Torse (1978) employs collage of two synchronous 55-minute films designed to be projected side-by-side on adjacent screens. The multiple perspectives emphasize Cunningham’s asymmetrical approach to space as well as his rejection of the idea that there exists a single, ideal vantage point from which to view the stage version of “Torse” (e.g. “12th row center”).


Relatedly, some comments by Cunningham himself:

In the theater, the spectator and the stage are fixed. Most stage work, particularly classical dancing, is based on perspective, a center point to and from which everything radiates. But we don’t do that anymore—I don’t mean in art, but in general. Ever since Einstein and now astronauts, we’ve realized something wholly different about space—that everything is moving. Well, I apply that to dancing.


And Cunningham in an interview with Jacqueline Lesschaeve collected in The Routledge Dance Studies Reader:

Cunningham: … think of a group of six people walking along the sidewalk together. At any moment they can all walk off in different directions, at different rhythms.


It’s especially visible when you see children, grouping and separating, walking off, going off, in very different dynamic modes. The same holds for flights of birds, at once fluid and abruptly changing.

One of my recent works, Torse, is very clearly made in that way. The whole piece was done using chance operations so as to have the possibility of any formation of the dancers appearing… One of the dancers appears at some point as a soloist. You have to watch, really use your eyes, but if you see it a few times, you see that each one comes separately at one point, some way, back or front, as a soloist. And though the general feeling throughout is that the dance remains a dance of ensembles, it is very individualized as well, each dancer at one point or another has a chance to appear outside the group. It’s subtle enough; it doesn’t happen in an obvious way or place, but I’m sure it’s felt. Or it may come about that there are no groups on stage, just two solo dancers. That was decided as well through chance means, which included this constant appearance of soloists. And I worked it out form step to step. I didn’t decide any of it ahead of time. As chance made solo possible, long or short, I would see which dancer could do it, and in what way.



Melissa Toogood, who performed the trio from Torse at the final tour of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, spoke with Time Out New York about the piece:

What are you dancing at the Armory?

He asked us to pick one thing. A lot of people put in many requests, but I asked for the Torse trio.



Because…I don’t know. It’s stupid. It’s so hard. As Robert says, “It’s the real deal.” It’s hard-core Cunningham. And that piece, my first week as a RUG, Robert did a workshop, and we did the whole third section of Torse. He gave me Robert Kovich’s part, which is basically a solo for Robert—it’s a decent chunk of the dance, and then you do it all again with everybody. And I remember after that week I was like, Oh my God. If it’s gonna be like this, I don’t know if I want this job! We learned the Torse trio after that. I don’t know, I think that also initiated me in the work, and it’s something that I worked with Merce on a lot. He changed certain things for me, and I like dancing with the boys that I’m dancing with.


There’s also a cool-looking article in French, by Patrick Bensard, about the Atlas movie. Putting it through Google Translate produced the following passages:

Each screen becomes the room listening to the other images.


For a screen to another, it is not only images that are exchanged and interpreted simultaneously: the presence of the central bar between the two screens advanced both space vacuum and nonsense dance.


In the film, the device of the film, its complexity, let themselves be gradually forgotten, overshadowed by the principle of the choreography, the purity of its mystery, the better to reveal: the spaces that stand up under the steps of the dancers are arranged and then bloom like flower petals, the beating of wings, the rustling of wild beasts.


For despite its development, the film in its look and its strength has something innocent and primitive beat of dancing feet dry on the ground echoing in my memory still evokes the wild horses (horses) that seemed to arise at a gallop one night in the ancient paintings done exactly the same time in New York by American artist Susan Rothenberg.


Then translating that into Hebrew, the Hebrew into French, and the French back into English produced these:


Pulse of the composition and distribution center between the two screens open unexpected choreographic dimension, reflecting children’s games too pure hardware logic of the Lord.


Graceful dance film can get in the rough, almost original, as evidence becomes the other.


Everything can disappear, much to the delight of the eye.


– Compiled by Tom McCormack

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