John Cage's score for Roaratorio (1983) comes with the subtitle An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake. And the last time he and the Cunningham company performed this work in Britain, it lived exuberantly up to its name. It was the Royal Albert Hall, 1984. And as the dancers danced – for 60 minutes, non-stop – Cage orchestrated the magnificent cacophony of his own score, which featured his own, singsong recital of fragments from Joyce's text, a mix of recorded sounds (chanting monks, screaming sirens, crowing cocks) that referenced every one of the 2,462 places mentioned in the Wake, and finally a band of traditional Irish musicians and singers, playing live.
After Cage's death in 1992, Roaratorio was never again performed in this form, but this loving reconstruction by the Cunningham company captures all of its carnival spirit. The score may be slightly diminished – it's all pre-recorded now – but the wildness and the musicality of its texture remain a hundred times more exhilarating than most of the contemporary "soundscapes" that Cage spawned. As for the dance itself, transferred to a proscenium stage, it looks both more focused, and much more powerful.
What's clearer is the sheer profligacy of its choreographic invention. Cunningham sends a caper of Irish dancing through the familiar steps of his vocabulary; so that in the midst of tightly angled jumps; high perched arabesques and closely patterned footwork come larky jigs and reels, buoyant heel and toe work, wide grins on the dancers' faces. The choreography also throws up patterns and configurations with entrancing ease: a knot of bodies that opens out like a flower, a promenade, a joyous circle dance, an off-kilter waltz.
Like Cage's score, the dancing is like a travelogue, passing through bars, dance halls and city streets. At moments the whole world seems to be on stage, especially as the dancers, recovering from a slightly tense opening night, perform with infectious energy and pleasure.
Saturday night however will be their last appearance in Britain, with performances of the two Cunningham masterworks RainForest and BIPED. Go.
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