Articles from Ballet2000

Cunningham Final Act

 The Merce Cunningham Dance Company gave its final performance, a very last "Event", in New York last December. Thus, the production of a genius of modern and contemporary dance, who considered each of his works to be unrepeatable acts of creation, risks extinction according to his own last will and testament. But the Merce Cunningham Trust has no intention of dying and grants rights for some "repertoire" pieces to other companies

When I asked Merce Cunningham if he wanted his works performed 100 years from now, he laughed and said, "No, dancing will be completely different then." And so the Merce Cunningham Dance Company closed down at the end of December after six performances during three days in New York. But that is not the end of the story, as the Merce Cunningham Trust, an organization formed in 2003, made clear in announcing its plans for the future.

Nonetheless, these performances as well as the company’s preceding season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (featuring a welcome revival of the rarely seen Roaratorio) and Merce Fair, a somewhat academic survey of Cunningham’s career at Lincoln Center Festival last summer, all constituted a continuous and varied homage by New York to one of its great artists.

MerceCunningham Trust, Night of 100 Solos A Centennial Event, Asha Graciaand Sophie Martin, image credit Stephen Wright

Nothing however was as thrilling as the first of these tributes – the passionate and vibrant memorial performance by current young members and older former dancers from the troupe who performed together shortly after Cunningham died at 90 on July 26, 2009. Both the first and final December performances (with a two-year world tour in between) took place in the cavernous space of a former officers’ marching hall in the Park Avenue Armory, a 19th century military building now mainly used for exhibitions and large-scale spectacles.
And both the 2009 and final appearances were organised as an "Event", the name Cunningham gave to his assemblage of excerpts (sometimes combined with segments of new choreography) that are seen without their usual context.

In the Armory, these collage pieces became a magnified Event. In 2009, the dancers performed within perimeters delineated on the floor and the audience easily walked from one space to the another, sometimes following the dancers. Despite Cunningham’s then-recent death, the mood was joyful and offered a celebration of his life. In this three-ring circus, the Event captured the essence of Cunningham – a mix of concept and playfulness, of discipline and anarchy.

Robert Swinston, the company’s senior dancer and now the Trust’s Director of Choreography did a magnificent job of assembling the segments and structure of both Armory Events. But in December, the mood was sober and formal. The dancers performed on three raised platforms instead of on the floor. The visual impact was strong, even if viewers saw two of three stages at a distance. In some parts of the hall, the artist Daniel Arsham hung his clusters of small white balls. Some viewers stood for nearly an hour on raised galleries, surveying all three stages. Most sat near one and rarely saw all three platforms at once.

It took an effort to see how the choreography on two of the three stages related to the one close to the viewer although its was obvious that the dancers moved from one stage to another, that group segments on one stage contrasted with solos on another.

Swinston created a typical Cunningham exercise in perception and simultaneity, enhanced wonderfully by trombone and trumpet soloists positioned high around the hall; below, on one side, electronic or conventional instruments provided the sound score by longtime Cunningham composers Takehisa Kosugi, David Behrman, John King,and Christian Wolff.

But unlike the 2009 celebration, this Event seemed less original, less wild, more dedicated to a formula. Many ideas associated with Cunningham were present – his love of the non-linear, his search for possibility and flexibility – the startling alogic of the choreography (often created through chance procedures). Attracted by the huge publicity surrounding the final Events, newcomers to Cunningham seemed as baffled as audiences were 50 years ago.

Although he did not want his company to continue, he did not oppose plans to have his works performed by groups and students not trained at his school. The Trust is closing the Cunningham school, yet it will sponsor technique classes and workshops. It will send Cunningham dancers to stage works in college dance departments and for other companies. The demand is there. Benjamin Millepied has already asked for a Cunningham work for his new company in Los Angeles. But how will it look onstage?

Cunningham was imitated by young choreographers for years (especially in France). But today this is no longer true and no one throws coins now to determine which direction to face. Yet whatever his methods, Cunningham taught us to look at dance in a new way. By the end, he worked in splendid isolation, loyal to himself. One can preserve Cunningham’s repertory but not his unique creativity.

Anna Kisselgoff

(BALLET2000 n°227 February 2012)