2010, 100:28 min, color, sound, HD video

Charles Atlas' Ocean captures the breathtaking 2008 performances of Merce Cunningham's seminal dance work of the same title. Completed in 1994, Cunningham's 90-minute opus is an homage to composer John Cage and novelist James Joyce. Similarly, Atlas' film serves as an ode to his four-decades-long collaboration with Cunningham, who died in 2009, before the film was finished. Atlas' Ocean celebrates these histories and their relation to the intertwining of video, music and dance.

Cunningham and Cage conceived of Ocean together after discovering Joyce's intention to write about the ocean before he died. Cage asked Cunningham to "make a dance in the round," imagining the audience, orchestra and stage set up in concentric circles [1]. After Cage's death in 1992, Cunningham commissioned composers Andrew Culver and David Tudor to write scores using chance methods to accompany his 128-phrase dance. True to Cage's vision of "a dance in the round," Ocean's inaugural performance was held at a 19th-century circus building in Brussels in 1994.

The 2008 performances of Ocean took place within an old granite quarry in Waite Park, Minnesota. Emphasizing the enormous material effort that the preparation of this site required, Atlas' film opens with shots of workers constructing the circular stage. He studies their rhythms with the same attentiveness he later applies to the dancers, reflecting Cunningham's well-known incorporation of "pedestrian movement" into his choreography. In the blink of an eye, a single male dancer replaces the workers' silhouettes. The viewer is thrust into Ocean as the sun sets and final lighting adjustments are made.

Hung above the stage, two large digital clocks record the performance's temporal progression. They make the connection between the poses of the fourteen dancers and time explicit, particularly during moments of stillness. Like the clocks, the music effects the experience of the dancers' movement. Composed of electronically reprocessed underwater noise, Tudor's "Soundings: Ocean Diary" compliments Culver's orchestral "Ocean 1-133," setting the dancers to a steady thumping that is occasionally interrupted by a burst of percussion or whale-like drone.

Despite these invocations of underwater life, the dance is not an oceanic narrative to be acted out. In fact, a key characteristic of Cunningham's work is his resistance to narrative. Archivist David Vaughan notes that Cunningham's dancers do not pretend to be anything other than themselves. However, Vaughan is careful to emphasize that this does not mean that drama is absent. As illustrated in Ocean, drama instead "arises from the intensity of the kinetic and theatrical experience, and the human situation on stage." [2] Atlas succeeds in transferring the intensity of the "human situation on stage" to film. One of the ways in which he does so is through emulating Ocean's circular stage through filming techniques. Never static, the perspective continuously shifts between three cameras set at varying distances from the performance. Atlas also plays with pace, ranging from sudden close-ups to slow Steadicam pans. At several points he makes stunning use of a split screen, either capturing one pose at different angles or showing two entirely different sections of the stage side by side. Through this technique, the film achieves the simultaneity and multiplicity that a circular stage vies for. At the same time, the split screen enforces an awareness that these two perspectives are only a sampling of what is possible. Atlas self-consciously registers film's limitations in fully capturing dance, while also demonstrating its immense capacity in this regard.


[1] Nancy Dalva, "Oceanography," Dance View Times Volume 3, No. 27 (2005): Accessed July 5th, 2012 http://archives.danceviewtimes.com/2005/Summer/03/ocean.htm.

[2] David Vaughan, "Merce Cunningham: A Lifetime of Dance," The PBS American Masters Series, December 16, 2001. Accessed July 5th, 2012. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/merce-cunningham/a-lifetime-of-dance/566/

A film by Charles Atlas. Ocean (1994). Concept: Merce Cunningham and John Cage. Choreography: Merce Cunningham. Direction: Charles Atlas. Dancers: Brandon Collwes, Julie Cunningham, Emma Desjardins, Holley Farmer, Jennifer Goggans, Daniel Madoff, Rashaun Mitchell, Koji Mizuta, Marcie Munnerlyn, Silas Riener, Daniel Squire, Robert Swinston, Melissa Toogood. Music: "Ocean 1-133" by Andrew Culver and performed by the St. Cloud Symphony Orchestra. Executive Director: Sandy Nadeau. "Soundings: Ocean Diary" by David Tudor. Performed by David Behrman, John King, and Takehisa Kosugi. Recording Engineer/Live Sound Mix by Stephan Moore. Production Design: Marsha Skinner. Associate Lighting Design: Aaron Copp. Associate Costume Design: Suzanne Gallo. Line Producer: Katherine Copeland Anderson. Assistant Director: Cathy Richards. Director of Photography: Jarred Alterman. Additional Cameras: Glen Fogel, Mike Harlow, Joshua Thorson. Utility/Key Grip: Tim Cronin. Dolly Grip: James Schaidler. Production Assistants: Justin Turkowski, George Sirbasku, Sarah Storbakken. Editing: Charles Atlas, Glen Fogel, Joshua Thorson.

For Cunningham Dance Foundation. Artistic Director: Merce Cunningham (1919-2009). Founding Music Director: John Cage (1912-1992). Music Director: Takehisa Kosugi. Director of Choreography: Robert Swinston. Executive Director: Trevor Carlson. Chief Fincancial Officer: Lynn Wichern. Production Manager: Davison Scandrett. Lighting Director: Christine Shallenberg. Wardrobe Supervisor: Anna Finke. Director of Institutional Advancement: Tambra Dillon. Director of Special Projects: Kevin Taylor. Contracts and Touring Manager: Jeff Donaldson-Forbes. Director of Development: Keith Butler. Company Manager: Geoffrey Finger. Archivist: David Vaughan. Merce Cunningham Dance Company's Dancers are memebers of the American Guild of Musical Artists AFL-CIO, the labor union representing professional dancers, singers, and staging personnel in the United States. "Ocean" was co-produced by the Cunningham Dance Foundation and the Walker Art Center, with the Benedicta Arts Center of the Colege of Saint Benedict and Northrop Dance at the University of Minnesota.

For Walker Art Center: Director: Olga Viso. McGuire Senior Curator: Philip Bither. Senior Program Officer: Julia Voigt. Associate Curator: Doug Benidt. Program Manager: Michele Steinwald. Performing Arts Assistant: Emily Taylor. Assistant Director, Public Relations: Rachel Joyce. Marketing Specialist: Brianne Whitcraft. Assistant Director, Visitor Services: Ellie Mckinney. House Manager: Max Wirsing. Visitor Services Associate: Ashley Thimm. Associate Director, Events and Media Production: Ben Geffen. Production Manager: Pearl Rea. Crew Chief, Andrew Wagner. Rigging Supervisor: Rob Mills. Audio Supervisor: Brent Alwin. Lighting Supervisor: Jon Kirchhofer. Production Assistants: Jason Clusman, Dave Good. Wardrobe: Angie Vo.

For Benedicta Arts Center at The College of Saint Benedict: Stuart Lang, Mary Darnall, Anna Thompson, James E. Schumann, Brooe Horejsi, Leslie Hanlon, Deb Wolford, Richard Crawford, Mary Calantoc.

For Northrop Dance at the University of Minnesota: Steven Rosenstone, Sally Dischinger, Ben Johnson, Cari Hatcher, Holly Radis-McCluskey, Eileen May.

For Martin Marietta Materials, St. Cloud Quarry: Mike Reinert, Tim Kuball, Reg Sachs, Dan Bokinskie, Mark Johnson.

Special Thanks: Kathy Halbreich, Former Director, Walker Art Center; Laura Kuhn, Executive Director, John Cage Trust; The City of Waite Park; Chief Dave Bentrud and the Waite Park Police and Fire Departments; St. Cloud Chamber of Commerce; Saint John's University; barbicanbite; Heroic Productions: Dan Zunker, Phil Karatz, Kirk Schutrop, Jim Loveland; Prairie Electric: Scott Oswald, Bob Forer; Ziegler/CAT: Wendy Famodu; Seating Solutions: Tony English, Tami Laserkosta; IATSE: Mike Ortenblad and the many, many IA crew; Highway Technologies: Jamie Ptacek; Mid America (roofing); Hannon Security.

Acknowledgments: Major support was provided by Sage and John Cowles and the National Endowment for the Arts, American Masterpieces: Presenting Program. Additional generous support was provided by Goodale Arts Fund of The Minneapolis Foundation, Dale Schatzlein and the Emily Maltz Fund of The Minneapolis Foundation, Hayes Fund of HRK Foundation, Russell Cowles, Josine Peters, Molly Daives, Michael J. Peterman, David A. Wilson, and many individual donors. The filming of "Ocean" was made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation with additional support provided by The Ford Foundation and Save America's Treasures, a partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Park Service, Department of the Interior, Judith R. and Alan H. Fishman, and members of the Board of Directors of the Cunningham Dance Foundation.

"Ocean" (1994) premiered at the kunstenFESTIVALdesArts, Cirque Royal in Brussels, Belgium, and the production toured to the Muziektheater, Amersterdam; Teatro La Fenice, Venice; the University of California, Berkeley; Lincoln Center Festival 1996, New York; Waterfront Hall, Belfast; Le Zenith, Montpellier; Miigata Performing Arts Center, Japan. "Ocean" was revived in July 2005 for Lincoln Center Festival, New York and Presented by Dance Umbrella at The Roundhouse, London in 2006. The revival of "Ocean" in September 2008 was a co-commission of the Benedicta Arts Center of the College of Saint Benedict, St. Joseph, MN and Dance Umbrella.


This work is HD video and must be projected with a High-Definition projector. Ideally, the size of the projection will be larger than life-scale. Please contact the EAI office for further information.
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