Life – a love letter
to Merce Cunningham
London MIME Festival 2022

Reviewer's rating

As part of the London Mime Festival the renowned group, Gandini Juggling, bring their new show to Sadler’s Wells for a brief run. This work is a wholly delightful tribute to the dance style and aesthetic of Merce Cunningham. Before the show began Sean Gandini and his partner, Kati Ylä-Hokkala, gave us a fascinating introduction to both the basics of juggling and how they have matched the juggling with balletic tropes drawn from Cunningham’s characteristic dance vocabulary. And so before the different segments commenced we were fully up to speed with how the number of balls can be associated with musical time signatures, how variations can be spun on the basic patterns – for example, higher balls or coloured balls; and how these formulas can be blended with particular balletic movements – especially contrastingly different rhythmic movements in upper and lower body. Even the occasional dropped ball, whether by accident or design, can add its own rhythmic emphasis.

What followed was a thoroughly absorbing procession of different combinations of the nine performers, armed with a range of different juggling tools – white leather balls, fruit-coloured balls, hoops and clubs. Poise, athleticism, synchronicity, were all combined to breath-taking effect, witnessed in – mostly – rapt silence by an enthralled audience. But over and above the scale of the technical skills on display there was a constant and impressive emotional overlay – not a narrative as such, but accumulations of pathos and exhilaratingly sustained kinetic energy that were highly suitable to the dance aesthetic of Merce Cunningham, where elements of geometric abstraction, of chance outcomes, and random choices by the performers were always built in and central to his work, not least through his partnership with the experimental composer John Cage.

Mention of John Cage takes us the musical accompaniment for this evening. Composer Caroline Shaw took a leaf out of Cage’s book by offering a very eclectic range of sounds which suggested a tone or atmosphere for the juggling and dance segments, rather than a formal rhythmic accompaniment. More an underscore than a score. Voices, natural sounds, and violin sonorities created live on stage by the composer all combined to help the audience balance the several layers of the show.

The costumes are very plain – just white and blue tops and bottoms, and the lighting design equally is quite simple, with a very effective picture frame around the performers that sets them up like a tableau vivant. But there is still so much, if not too much, to look at and take in at the same time that you wished you could see the sequences over again to register and absorb the full range of their creative riches.