In early December 1977 John Cage took to the stage before a packed audience at the Teatro Lirico in Milan and began to read a random string of phonemes, enunciating a series of long and short, hard and soft sounds that at times approached but steadfastly refused to coalesce into any kind of intelligible words. Some thirty years later, French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj has used a live recording of Cage's performance--complete with the increasingly restless and scandalized catcalls of the audience--as the score for his Empty Moves (parts I, II & III), in which he takes a similarly deconstructive approach to choreographic phrasing.
At the start of the piece, Preljocaj's four dancers--two men and two women--enter upstage left and mark their spots on the floor with a bit of tape. One of the women extends her leg and upper body into a horizontal plank; one of the men then grabs her outstretched arm and turns her, setting off a chain reaction of movement in the other dancers that flows more or less continuously over the next hour and forty-five minutes. Twice more during the course of the work the dancers will return to this spot and repeat the same opening sequence. However, the dance that follows in each of the three sections defies interpretive synthesis. Partnering combinations change; unison movement becomes faster and more percussive or slower and more flowing; extended floorwork is traded for jumps and hyper-verticality; the men drag the women around like rag dolls and then the women do the same to the men. The only constant is the materiality of the dancers' bodies and the endlessly inventive movement vocabulary Preljocaj deploys on and through them.
To this end, the virtuosity of the dancers--who are simply flawless--mirrors the virtuosity of the vocal music produced by Cage, who remains precise and unperturbed in his recitation despite the ever-mounting impatience and hostility of his audience. Except that what is enacted in Empty moves is anything but mimeticism. Which is also to say that the real revelation of Preljocaj's choreographic experiment in this work is that together the movements of his dancers' bodies and the grain of Cage's voice produce a reversal of figure and ground. For over the course of the piece it becomes more and more clear that to the extent the Teatro Lirico recording functions as a musical score, the dancers are reacting as much to the whistles and claps and verbal abuse of the Milanese as they are to maestro Cage. Then, too, our own restlessness watching 90+ minutes of rigorously abstract movement (exacerbated last night by a stiflingly hot and airless studio at The Dance Centre) necessarily becomes part of Preljocaj's choreographic score.