The riot at the first Rite of Spring has nothing on a 1977 performance in Milan of John Cage’s Empty Words (Part III). The impish composer reads a mashup of words and spaces between words (aka silence) extracted from Thoreau’s 14-volume Journals. An hour into the two-and-a-half hour recital, the audience of art students begins a rhythmical clapping and jeering. Cage never flags.
I used to think his choice of Thoreau was merely a tease: a stack of takeout menus would have done. But French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj’s stealthily uplifting Empty Moves (parts I & II) has convinced me otherwise. The hour-long dance for four embodies the composer’s resistance to the battalion of ideas about art and meaning, thinking and being, that have defined western thought for centuries. Empty Moves proceeds with benign equanimity in the face of the students’ long-ago but still alarming obstruction.
This is a dance graced by an abundance of unpredictable invention. Empty Moves expresses a tender interest in the body’s most eccentric or banal parts, from nostril to fingertip to hip socket. Movement travels by chain reaction along these unlikely paths. Time moves as if something deeper than will drove it, as when a flock of birds rises from a wire.
The art students have grown so loud that my pulse quickens. Even 33 years later, their violent contempt is frightening. But the persistence of Cage and, by proxy, the dancers rises above the noise and the dance comes flooding back.