As I left last night’s performance by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, my husband asked, “Is this the kind of modern dance that post modern dance grew in response to?”
Me: “Uh, yeah. Exactly.”
I’ve been thinking about that question and response in the few hours since. I still stand behind my answer and yet… there’s something special about Merce. There’s something about the longevity and relevance of the work that still garners, if not downright adoration, then certainly the utmost respect. He has advanced dance in terms of involving chance and randomness. He declared dance independent of music. He created dances alongside music, as well as décor, so that they were coexisting companions and not one leading the other around. That was radical thinking, it still is, and that is a value many post moderns (and post post moderns) align with today.
Merce’s dances often place the viewer in another place and time. The particular and quirky combinations of port de bras with the unlikeliest legs create a tone of otherworldliness, the visual equivalent of listening to a foreign language spoken fluently amongst the locals.
The first piece on the program, Pond Way (pictured above), was the most recent. Choreographed in 1998, the curtain rose upon the 13 dancers already in motion, repeating shared steps at slightly different times. They resembled elegant animals in their drapey white costumes, cranes perhaps or egrets, with their long legs dominating their movements. There were one-legged balances with the other limbs specifically akimbo, leaps into one-legged doubled overness, endless walks on 4th releve. This dance expressed a community of individuals. There was very little contact and yet relationships were created by defining the space, adding and subtracting dancers from the wings, transitioning at perfect visual moments, adding to the existing scene just in time and yet surprisingly.
The second piece, RainForest, amplified the otherworldly quality established in the first. Here the 6 dancers partnered and soloed amidst and underneath puffy silver foil-like “clouds” designed by Andy Warhol. Randomness played a part as the dancers’ interacted with the clouds on the floor. They danced as though they weren’t there, kicking them out of the way as steps demanded, without malice, simply because they were in their path. The shock of the silver puffs juxtaposed the nude clad dancers. Organic and industrial beings coexist.
This piece left so much room for supposition and imaginative leaping on the part of the viewers. The dancers were so specifically weird, precise and responsive to and against one another that we were somehow free to let our imaginations wander. I conjured Adam and Eve–like retellings, humans both sultry and angry, at each other and their environment. And yet there was a comfort, like they were “at home”, in their garden or playground, leaving them safe to express their true natures, however volatile or prickly. This piece was sublime and is becoming more so the further I get from it.
Antic Meet, from 1958, was interesting to see in comparison to the other works and in anti-chronology. Ah, here are those pesky 4th releve walks. Poor Achilles heels, thank you for persisting so that we can see a sampling of this work one last time.
Antic Meet, as the title suggests, was a romp. It’s a classroom-step ballet that uses props and cute little scenarios to show off Merce’s technique and the virtuosity of the dancers. He cleverly inserted a bit with something that looked like a Christmas sweater on crack. A male dancer stands center upstage and grapples with it over his head. It’s many arms offer opportunities for personal entanglement as well as hilarious interactions with a corps of pouf-clad women. It is a comedic homage to Graham and her dance Lamentation. Merce, too, responds to his forebears.
There was a section called A Single that offered a moment of depth amongst the levity. The same male dancer who just sweater wrestled is this time clad in white coveralls. He resembles an artist at rest as he sort of soft shoes in a quietly presentational way. At one point I think I detected a waving gesture. It was like Merce himself was having a final word, with us, with himself. A farewell filled with poignant delicacy.
This Legacy Tour means that the company is gracefully disbanding. Come December 31 of this year Merce Cunningham Dance Company will be no longer. It is fascinating to witness this transition, an unprecedented closing up shop while preserving the work digitally and even providing career transition grants to the artists who’ve dedicated swaths of precious career time to Merce’s vision. Legacy indeed, Merce was a visionary to the last.