Berlin, Part II: Residency Activities

Robert Swinston giving Cunningham Technique community class on the stage of Akademie der Kunst

Most dance companies do what is usually called “residency activities” while they are touring.  This is a long tradition in the performing arts world, aimed at giving other kinds of exposure (beyond spectatorship, or sitting in the theater watching a performance) and experience to those interested in the work being presented.  MCDC has always offered technique classes, also sometimes referred to as master classes, as an element of their touring activities…in the photo above you see Robert Swinston giving class to members of the Berlin dance community on the stage at Akademie der Kunst.  During this visit to Berlin, company member Jennifer Goggans also taught Cunningham technique.

A successful residency is always time- and labor-intensive to plan as it requires the investment and imagination of both the presenting organization(s) and the visiting company.  In the case of the residency in Berlin, a large number of ancillary activities and offerings were made available, some of them linked to a year-long celebration of John Cage’s centennial (which occurs in 2012).  In the lobby at the Akademie, where the final two performances of the company’s visit to Berlin take place (a delightful program that opened last night:  Suite for Five, Antic Meet and Duets), around eight tv monitors have been scattered about, each of them featuring a different Cunningham or Cunningham/Cage film or interview.  Sofas and headphones are also provided, so that people can sit on a sofa, put on the headphones and hear Merce or John discussing their work.

Lobby, Akademie der Kunst, featuring Cage and Cunningham interviews and films

Upstairs at the Akademie, Tacita Dean’s six films of Merce performing to John Cage’s 4’33”, entitled Merce Cunningham Performs STILLNESS, is also being screened.  Dean, who also filmed the last of the films Merce appeared in (Craneway Events), has an exhibition upcoming at the Tate Modern in London.  We will miss the opening on October 11 by two days!

A highlight of the residency activities in Berlin is the DanceForms workshop led by Trevor Carlson.  Over six days, the twenty or so participants had the opportunity to work with the DanceForms software that Merce used for the last almost 20 years of his life as a choreographic tool.  After developing several phrases of material using DanceForms and dice in various chance procedures, three groups then learned all of the phrases and created chunks of choreography that they then organized and filmed in both indoor and outdoor environments at Uferstudios.  On the final day of the workshop, today, they are working together on editing the filmed material into a short dance film that will be screened this evening at 5:30 pm local time.

Two moments from taping Danceforms Workshop material at Uferstudios in Berlin.

In the photos featured left and below, groups from the DanceForms workshop rehearse and video sections of material developed with the aid of DanceForms software and chance procedures.  The process draws on both chance and choice, replicating aspects of Merce’s process of developing his choreographic ideas.

At right, sections of material were filmed outdoors on the “urban campus” of Uferstudios, an artist complex featuring some splendid dance studios and other artist workspace.  There’s even a “power nap” room available.  Would that all dance studios had one of those!

One of the things this residency did NOT feature is pre- or post-performance talks, a frequent feature among many American presenters.  While we can debate the pros and cons of such activities of “audience dramaturgy,” the presenters here in Berlin have assembled a wide array of activities with the company and provided entry points into Merce’s and John’s work in their own words, and through activities that represent the aesthetic they developed together and independently over many years of experimentation, chance and choice, and productivity.  The concepts and practices that they devised and experimented with will remain available for use and reconceptualization long after the company that Merce first assembled in 1953 has disbanded, one of many testimonies to the lasting impact of his and John’s radical approach to art and artmaking.

We depart tomorrow for London and an ambitious schedule there.

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Anatomy of A Tour: Berlin Part I

Tour Itinerary, Thursday 21 September, Berlin, Germany

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s triumphant Legacy Tour is now in its final four months…hard to believe for the ensemble as the tour “continuum” which started at eight pages in length is now down to one page.

We are in Berlin, Germany right now.  The production team arrived on Monday, the dancers and most musicians (David Berhman and Kosugi are here, along with sound engineer and musician Jesse Stiles) and admin staff on Tuesday, and Trevor Carlson, Executive Director as well as I your Legacy Plan Fellow Wednesday morning.  Our “caboose” will be musician Christian Wolff, who arrived yesterday.  I thought it might be interesting on this three-week tour (we continue on to London next week) to follow what is happening and give a sort of “inside view” on dance touring in general and this remarkable farewell tour of the Cunningham Company in particular.

Wednesday was a “free day” for the dancers, while the production crew loaded in to the Volksbuhn Theater (on the east side of the city), the first of two venues where the company performs during this week-long residency.  At the end of the day a press conference was held at Akademie der Kunst, one of the presenting partners.  Hosted by Nele Hertling, participants from MCDC included composer/musician David Behrman, MCDC Executive Director Trevor Carlson, Director of Choreography/dancer Robert Swinston and dancer Andrea Weber.  It was attended by around 10 members of the press and lasted an hour, during which the speakers addressed various questions from Nele and various journalists.  Nele presented a thorough overview of Merce and the company’s history in Berlin, and spoke with special affection of a visit in the late 1980s, “before the Wall went down,” to East Berlin.  “There was a lot of apprehension about how East Berliners would respond to this kind of dance,” she said, “but it was triumphant, and deeply moving to Merce and to all of us.”

Press Conference, l-r David Behrman, Trevor Carlson, Nele Hertling, Robert Swinston, Andrea Weber

The discussion included questions about Nearly Ninety, Antic Meet and the challenge of staging Cunningham revivals, the Legacy Plan, and feelings amongst the company members as the closure of the company looms.  Of NN, Andrea Weber remarked, “It took me a year to find some serenity in it, I had a hard time handling so much stillness.”  She described the process of making the piece, noting that it took nine months and involved a great deal of work created by Merce with the RUGs (the internal moniker for the company’s Cunningham repertory understudy group) that was then transferred to the company dancers.  “In that process he would play with and change the material based on who was doing the part,” she explained.  “He might change tempos, or shift something based on individual dancers.”  Trevor added that this work was the first since 1991 where Merce did not use the DanceForms software as a tool in creating the movement material then brought into the studio and given to the dancers.  “He was having difficulty making the mouse work,” he commented.  “So he returned to earlier forms of chance procedures in developing material.”  Later on when asked whether Merce really threw dice, Robert said, “Merce worked on things months in advance.  He threw the dice constantly, kept asking questions, yes or no questions, and once he got one answer he’d ask another question. Usually he had things planned out before he came into the room, every work had different principles.” Carlson added, “I would on the morning after the premiere of a new work on tour, go to Merce’s room to find that he was working at his computer, developing material for the next piece.  He was constantly making movement.” Andrea added as well, saying that “His class was a canvas for his work.  He taught until the very end.”  Her statement was a reminder of the numerous times I watched Merce teach, giving the dancers utterly impossible phrases and watching to see how they would solve the dilemmas of movement and timing he was handing them.  He told me once that it was an extreme challenge to describe what he wanted when his physical issues denied the ability to demonstrate what he was after.  “So I try to describe it and then watch the dancers to see who is getting at what I mean.”

When questions arose about Antic Meet, Robert described the process of reconstructing a Cunningham work in general, and that work in particular.  “Merce wasn’t interested in the revivals initially,” he stated.  “He became interested.  How it worked was, when we [the company] were off, I would go into the studio and work with the RUGs on something, perhaps to mine material for Events or just to bring back something from past repertory for the RUGs to perform.  We would go into the studio in a workshop setting and try to reconstruct material.  Merce would also be there, working on whatever the current work was.  He was benevolent about it.  He never looked very happy about it, it was so personal for him.  He associated past works with the dancers who performed the various parts.  He never said that, but it had to be part of what he was thinking about. Over time he became accustomed to what we were doing, and he would warm to it, and share his memories about the work with the younger dancers.  He often said he was interested in having a living archive.  Some material ended up in Events, other things eventually fully revived.”  Swinston went on to say that for the Legacy Tour, seven works were brought back (there were twelve active works in the repertory when Merce died in July, 2009).  “It gave us a wide array of things to make available on the tour, reaching from the 1950s through to Merce’s last work, completed in 2009.”

In discussing Antic Meet, David Behrman spoke about Cage’s score and the challenges of performing it.  “It is broken into 30 second chunks,” he described.  “Some of it, particularly the violin part, is very hard to play.  The essence of the music is the unforeseen things that happen, where something in the sounds will coincide with something the dancers are doing that is completely unplanned.  Then magic things happen.”

The question of what the dancers will do after the tour finishes arose, as it does everywhere that the company now appears.  “It’s different for everyone,” Andrea replied.  “There’s been a shift underway during the last six months, the ending is now apparent. Some of us are ready to go on to other things, for others it’s harder.  It’s exciting to carry the work on, and very emotional. Every day is different.”

The press conference included Trevor Carlson’s thorough explanation of the three elements of the Legacy Plan (the celebratory world tour, assembly of the digital “dance capsules” containing detailed information and videos of approximately 80 of Cunningham’s works for future reference for scholars and reconstructions, and the closure of the company including career transition packages for the artistic, production and administrative staff — including 15 dancers) and thereafter the transition of all assets to The Merce Cunningham Trust effective July 1, 2012.  He added that the Merce Cunningham Archive has already been acquired by the Performing Arts Division of the New York Public Library, and that the decor and costumes of Cunningham’s works were acquired by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.   “It meant that everything could stay together,” he said, “rather than, for instance, Rauschenberg’s costumes for Summerspace being separated from the decor he designed.”

Though unusual for the dance world, the press conference format was stimulating and informative owing to the mix of speakers and the questions generated by the journalists who attended.  After it finished, the Akademie der Kunst hosted a reception to celebrate the launch of the residency.  And last night, a sold-out house attended the third-to-last performance of Nearly Ninety2 at the Volksbuhn, on the east side of Berlin.  We all took the train to get to the theater (as opposed to the usual bus, van or cab ride) because the Pope (yes, THE Pope) is in Berlin for a three-day State Visit to his homeland.  Street closures and traffic jams abound.  And the Berlin Marathon is this weekend.  Thankfully our hotel is in walking distance (without having to cross runners’ paths) for the next round of performances at Akademie der Kunst.

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Merce Fair

Trish Lent teaching Field Dances in the Rose Hall lobby.

On July 16, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company made its third-to-last engagement in New York City with a day-long “Merce Fair” at the Frederick P. Rose Hall, part of the annual Lincoln Center Festival.  Months of planning led to a wide array of contributors from within and outside the company in an array of activities that peeled away the curtain to give viewers and participants many different experiences and exposures to the process and content of the Cunningham-Cage aesthetic. Over the course of three multi-hour blocks of activity in numerous spaces in the Rose Theater complex, the day-long festival included opportunities to watch the company (along with members of the RUGs — Repertory Understudy Group) take their pre-performance class; learn Field Dances from former company member and current director of licensing Patricia Lent, based on Merce’s work Fielding Sixes; watch an array of Cunningham films and videos, as well as Mondays with Merce webisodes; hear “Insider Stories” panel discussions, assembled and moderated by Nancy Dalva, on working with Merce and dancing his work with former dancers including Valda Setterfield, Ellen Cornfield, Michael Cole, Gus Solomons Jr. and Alan Good; see the RUGs perform a MinEvent based on material excerpted from Merce’s work Inventions; frolic in the lobby with some of Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds, the silver mylar balloons that float through Merce’s 1968 work Rainforest; and take a Ryoanji Workshop based on John Cage’s method of deploying chance procedures to create Ryoanji drawings using dice, pencils and rocks.  Kevin Taylor led the popular Family Day Workshops in the morning and afternoon, giving children and their parents a chance to experience some of Merce’s movement and use of chance procedures. The company gave matinee and evening performances of two works featured in the Legacy Tour, Squaregame (1976) and Duets (1980), with an entr’act featuring John Cage’s composition Song Books.

In the beautiful Allen Room, with its vast windows overlooking Columbus Circle and the southern end of Central Park, live music composed by Cunningham collaborators including John Cage, David Behrman, Takehisa Kosugi, Christian Wolff, David Tudor, Alvin Lucier, and John King was performed in afternoon and evening sessions. Betsy Taylor, associate curator for the visual arts at The Walker Art Center, gave talks on Cunningham stage decors and Merce’s groundbreaking collaborations with visual artists.  And one unexpected hit of the evening was in the lovely installation created by company archivist David Vaughan, who laid out many “items of Merce history” including posters, t-shirts, programs and letters on display…and was amused to find that dozens of visitors wanted to flip through his metal boxes of index card files to see for themselves the meticulous records he kept of Cunningham works and performances over the decades.  “They wanted to find out when they’d seen something,” he explained as he watched person after person lean over to find and pull a card on a particular dance. “Do put them back,” he repeatedly instructed.

MCDC archivist David Vaughan, right, and an unknown researcher.

With so many different things underway, many happening at the same time, viewers were free to wander as they wished and spend their time on what interested them.  The instructive note in the Lincoln Center Festival program was simple:  “Within each Session, you are welcome to choose your own path through the rooms and events, spending as much or as little time as you like.  There is no wrong way to experience Merce Fair.”  It was almost like attending one of Cage’s MusicCircuses, although in this case one need not anticipate the possibility of aural cacophany in turning a corner.  No matter what room or performance space one entered, something interesting to someone was happening.  Merce, I think, would have been puckishly delighted with the array of activities underway, and would have been even more delighted at the spectrum of observers who wandered in, some with much deliberate intention and others because they learned something unusual was underway in Rose Hall.

Along with the delight of seeing Duets  (originally created for American Ballet Theater) and Squaregame again, a favorite moment for me was encountering three people near the escalator at the end of the evening, a man and woman escorted by a gentleman who seemed to be providing them with a tour of the facility before they went to dine at Per Se.  I could see the host better than the couple at first, and overheard him explaining that what was underway right now was a day-long festival involving a dance company whose choreographer had died not long ago.  I watched the  listening man’s head turn to observe the silver mylar balloons in the lobby and recognized who it was just as Laurence Fishburne said, “Merce Cunningham?”

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Cunningham Technique

Banu Ogan teaching Cunningham class at The Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago

For the first two weeks of July, former Cunningham dancer Banu Ogan spent two weeks in Chicago teaching Cunningham technique and workshops during Columbia College Chicago’s Dance Department summer school session.  Ogan, who danced with MCDC for seven years during the 1990s, is a master teacher of Merce’s technique.  She is one of several former MCDC dancers to whom the Cunningham Director of Licensing, Trish Lent, turns when works or teachers are requested by other companies or college and university dance departments.  In 2006, a milestone of sorts occurred in New York City when, for the first time, Cunningham Technique was taught regularly to dance students at The Juilliard School.  The teacher was Banu, who continues to teach Cunningham at Juilliard twice a week in the autumn and spring terms.

While she was in Chicago I talked several times with her about the qualities  that Cunningham’s approach to dance training offers.  The word she kept returning to was “strength.”  The same word surfaced last week in a conversation with MCDC Director of Choreography and longtime Cunningham dancer Robert Swinston at the company’s  home in the Westbeth complex in Greenwich Village.  “What Merce was able to do was extend the classical vocabulary to contemporary studies,” he said.  “He embraced the strong use of the legs and the development of a classical dancer in terms of plié, tendu, degage, ronde de jambe; increasing in range from small to bigger, but he was rooted in modern dance in terms of the basic back exercises.   He rooted the body  in parallel position to create a solid base from which the torso moves out of the leg, so the torso can articulate itself as an extension, like the legs.  The back isn’t just a gesture, it’s an extension.”

One of the things that Banu often works into her classes is descriptions of what and how Merce would describe what he wanted to his dancers during class.  Swinston similarly talked about “the critical moment” in all of Merce’s technique classes.  “It was the point in class where all the dancers had to go into unknown territory, where they found out they could do something they didn’t know they could do.”  Swinston added that Merce used the latter part of each class to test ideas and try phrases that frequently appeared later in new dances.  “He had no problem asking someone to do something unusual,” he said.  “He never presented it as something unusual, he just presented it as something to do.”

Because we have — thanks to former MCDC dancer Paige Cunningham — a regular presence of Merce’s technique in our program at Columbia College Chicago, we have observed over time the qualities and strength that this training provides to young dancers.  When we did our first MinEvent with student dancers in 2003, Merce and several of the MCDC dancers came to a “command performance” of the piece one afternoon while the company was in Chicago on tour.  At the time, Banu was on our faculty and set the work.  When it finished, Merce looked at me and said, “they’re so strong. They’re so strong.”  In retrospect I suspect he was as much (if not more) complimenting Banu’s effort with them in instilling the necessary strength to dance such rigorous work, but he was also complimenting the young dancers for taking on a 32 minute MinEvent having never before studied his technique.

We’ve seen it over and over since, in putting Cunningham Technique into our program at Columbia.  No matter what sort of dancing someone takes on, it’s a way of learning movement that provides strength, stability, mobility, the capacity to isolate body parts and rhythms, and being independent of musical information, it fully validates dance as its own physical discourse and artform.  As we look ahead to a future in which this work can disseminate even more broadly around the world, we can rejoice yet again in Merce’s many lasting gifts of dance and dancing.

 

For a look at more discussion of Cunningham Technique, visit the Mondays With Merce webisodes at merce.org:  http://merce.org/about/mwm_archive.php

For Mondays With Merce webisodes specific to technique, see http://dlib.nyu.edu/merce/mwm/2008-01-12/ and http://dlib.nyu.edu/merce/mwm/2010-07-26/

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Dance Capsules and Filming at Purchase

Robert Swinston observing dancers (l-r Brandon Collwes, Marcie Munnerlyn, Daniel Madoff) in Nearly Ninety 2

MCDC spent most of the week of June 27 on a filming project, undertaken on a stage at Purchase College’s Center for the Performing Arts in New York.  One of the key elements of the Legacy Plan revolves around the creation of digital “Dance Capsules” which will contain digitized information on many of Merce’s dances (the original plan was to create 50 Dance Capsules, there are now over 70 and efforts continue to create even more, each devoted to a specific Cunningham dance).  Each Dance Capsule will contain voluminous information on its respective dance, ranging from notes from Merce’s dance-specific notebook to lighting plots to film/video recordings to costume and decor information to…well, you get the idea.  An unprecedented effort in preservation and documentation in dance, the capsules provide a comprehensive documentation on each dance in all its aspects, and will be available to people licensing specific works and to scholars and dance researchers interested in studying Cunningham works.

The work in Purchase this week involved filming three of the works slated for Dance Capsules:  Nearly Ninety2, Second Hand, and Quartet.   They were filmed in full costume and lighting twice apiece, in live continuous performance.  Excepting Second Hand, the recordings were done in silence, in the same way that the company rehearses.  Much as I love seeing the works in their fully-produced state with all of the decor and sound, there is a different pleasure in seeing Merce’s choreography in its pure state on the stage.

Next weekend everyone travels to Hanover, NH for performances at Dartmouth College.  I will see them next on July 16, at the “Merce Fair,” a day-long series of activities and performances at the Rose Hall as part of the the Lincoln Center Festival, New York City.

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Jerusalem Report II: Events

Anish Kapoor's "Heavenly City" during Family Day

A belated entry, thanks to so much going on + travel + other projects.  But… “as I was saying…”

After performing at the Sherover, the dancers had a day off (many went to Tel Aviv and enjoyed the beaches and scene there) and the crew relocated the operation to two gallery spaces at the Israel Museum.  The nation’s premiere national museum (it houses the Dead Sea Scrolls along with a wide collection ranging from archeological antiquities to a contemporary art collection), the institution had a major overhaul on its 2o acre campus that was completed less than a year ago.  On rare breaks, members of the company and crew enjoyed wandering through the Billy Rose Garden, which features numerous sculptures and was designed for the original campus by Isamu Noguchi.

Activities at the Museum were no less imaginatively developed than those in Jerusalem at the Merce Campus and the Sherover.  As mentioned in an earlier post, for a month prior to the company’s visit, several docents gave  “Merce Tours” highlighting contemporary artists in the Museum whose work in some way coincided with Merce’s, as well as the aesthetic developments between the 1950s and today.  Kevin Taylor, MCDC company manager, led four different “Family Day” workshops for children and their parents.  In each workshop, over 40 participants had a chance to experience movement and some chance procedures in three environments (including in front of Robert Rauschenberg’s beautiful backdrop, Immerse), finishing with a Sounddance circle around Kapoor’s gleaming sculpture (above).

Family Day activities in front of "Immerse" by Robert Rauschenberg

The schedule of performances at the Museum called for two Events each day, determined in relation to Museum hours and Shabbot.  Thus on Thursday, June 9, the dancers did 45 minute Events at 7:40 and 9:40 p.m., on Friday at 2:40 and 4:40, and on Saturday at 9:10 and 11:10 p.m.  Two galleries, linked by a long interior hall where the musicians were set up, provided the stage areas.  All dancers performed in both spaces in each Event, so audience members (who were free to wander back and forth, and watch things from different perspectives) saw not just the dancing but the transits back and forth between galleries.  With 200 spectators per performance it was a full and rich environment on each occasion.

Musician Station for Israel Museum Events, John King, Takehisa Kosugi and Jesse Stiles providing music scores

Prior to each performance, Trevor Carlson greeted audiences in the auditorium to provide a short introduction and show an episode of Mondays with Merce.  Post-performance, those who wished could go upstairs to hear discussion, also hosted by Trevor, in the Merce gallery (an exhibition entitled Merce Cunningham: Dancing with Art) featuring works by Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and the continuous screening of Charles Atlas’s film of Ocean.

Saying goodbye to all of our new friends in Jerusalem was hard, and one of them wrote to me later to say “we were all suffering  separation anxiety on that last night.”  The toasts to the dancers, and the final performances of Events by Merce’s company in a museum setting, left none of us unmoved.  But the residency was truly triumphant in every aspect, and a testimony to the quality of what can occur when all parties are committed and willing to apply imagination and labor to a successful engagement with an artist’s ideas.  Merce would have been very pleased.

The company proceeded on to Moscow (Legacy Tour City #36) and Marseilles (#37) before returning home to New York where they are now working in the  Performing Arts Center at Purchase College, filming Nearly Ninety 2, Quartet and Second Hand.

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Jerusalem Report, 11 June. Part I: Merce Campus and Sherover Theater

After company class on the stage of the Sherover Theater, Catherine Yass drop for Split Sides

As the residency in Jerusalem draws to a close this evening, with two Events remaining, herewith some highlights of this remarkable and packed visit to Israel on the Legacy Tour.  The Events tonight, by the way, will mark the final performances of Events in museum gallery space for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. A toast at the end of the evening is planned.

The residency continued last week with the arrival of the production staff, musicians and dancers, film screenings, and a concert at the Under the Mountain Festival featuring MCDC Sound Engineer/Musician Jesse Stiles. He performed David Tudor’s  score for Quartet, Sextet for Seven.

On Sunday evening, activities on the Merce Campus continued with a discussion at the between dancers Robert Swinston, Andrea Weber and Daniel Madoff, plus Trevor Carlson and moderated by yours truly.  The conversation focused on working with Merce and his collaborators, and how the dancers experience the differences between working on a proscenium stage doing repertory and performing Events in gallery and museum spaces where the audience is up close and moving about while they perform.

Merce Campus Panel Discussion: l-r Bonnie Brooks, Andrea Weber, Trevor Carlson, Robert Swinston, Daniel Madoff

On Monday evening June 6, the company performed Split Sides and Sounddance at the Sherover Theater as part of the Israel Festival.  A Study Day involving close to 100 students from several Israeli universities and high schools observed company class and a run-through of the first half of Split Sides, then had a session with the company musicians.  Prior to the performance, Trevor was at the Merce Campus presenting his closing talk there, on Merce Cunningham: Past, Present and Future.  David Vaughan, MCDC Archivist, and I gave a pre-performance talk in the theater lobby for Study Day students and other members of the general public, providing further orientation to Merce’s work and what they would be seeing that evening.  David then went backstage to prepare to host the rolling of the die to ascertain the order of choreography, costumes, decor, music and light cues for Split Sides.

As sometimes occurs in live theater, things didn’t go entirely as planned that night, owing to a broken pipe and drops stuck in the theater’s flyloft.  So rather than beginning (as the dice throw indicated) Split Sides with Robert Heishman’s black and white camera obscura drop, the crew lowered Catherine Yass’s drop into place and it served as the decor for both halves of split sides.  The 32 possible variations of Split Sides became 33.  The sold out house responded with sustained applause and cheers after both that and Sounddance.

Next:  Events at The Israel Museum.

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