“Percussion music is revolution,” declared John Cage, thevisionary composer and proto-DJ who was also choreographer MerceCunningham’s longtime companion and collaborator, in an essay aboutmodern dance. “Tomorrow, with electronic music in our ears, we willhear freedom.”
Well, it’s tomorrow, and to Radiohead, Merce Cunningham’s Split Sidesprobably seemed like the fulfillment of Cage’s prophecy. The group thathas struggled so famously with fame landed a gig out of singer ThomYorke’s fever dreams: providing abstract accompaniment for a dancetroupe from the darkness of an orchestra pit, pretty much invisible tothe audience, most of whom wouldn’t have recognized the band if they’dbeen busking outside the theater. Most, but not all: A squad of somberRadiohead fans canvassed Lafayette Avenue for a miracle ticket to thisone-time-only performance, for which scalpers were getting $500 a seat.
The lobby throbbed with art-world glitterati and rubberneckers (“Who’s that woman with Lou Reed? Are he and Laurie Anderson finis?!”).Onstage, New York’s arts-loving, smoke-hating mayor, Michael Bloomberg,delivered opening props to Cunningham, the 84-year-old high priest ofmodern dance, as Cunningham’s company warmed up behind him. Meanwhile,Radiohead and their Icelandic prog-rock pals Sigur Ros stood squirminglike kids at a school assembly. Yorke, in a battered black leatherjacket, black shirt and pants, and white sneakers, periodically crackedwise to bassist Colin Greenwood; one briefly imagined that the singermight actually miss being the center of attention.
Per a dice roll, Radiohead were paired with the firstsegment of the evening: Cunningham likes to utilize chance elements,believing, as did Cage, that music and dance should functionindependently in performance. The piece began with Jonny Greenwood’slonely electronic keyboards; bell tones and violin drones rose up, thenbits of a religious broadcast, then Yorke’s wordless vocals, all loopedand blurred. Dancers in sheer soot-gray-and-white leotards twistedaround one another, creating a gorgeous human geometry. Only rarely, aswhen a woman repeatedly fell backward into her partner’s arms –recalling one of those psychotherapeutic trust exercises — didgestures rise beyond the abstract. This was Rorschach art, open to anyinterpretation. Toward the end, as Yorke pogoed wildly over astudio-size mixing board in the pit, you could see him indulging hisown interpretation: that he was rocking the decks at the coolest danceclub on the planet.
Sigur Ros created even more magic in Split Sides‘second half, performing with an amplified sculpture (built by leadsinger Jonsi Birgisson’s dad) and incorporating mic’d ballet shoes anda collection of modified music boxes that often made the dancers seemlike windup toys in a psychedelic window display.
When it was all over, fans seemed equally dazzled and puzzled (“I had no idea whatthe fuck was going on,” confided one). It was a lesson in how bands candisappear almost completely and still take you someplace amazing.