It’s Merce Cunningham’s birthday! Today on the blog I’d like to give a bow of respect to one of the most fascinating, original, maddening, endearing, and brilliant artists of the last hundred years, a creative genius whose twinkle-in-the-eye dances took me gently by the face and shook me to smithereens when I saw them for the first time. In homage to him and his extraordinary company, today I’d like to share a review I did for the Dance Insider (under my maiden name) of their Spring 2001 season opening performance at City Center in New York.
I haven’t seen a piece by Cunningham live in many years now. But these images are as fresh in my imagination as if I’d seen them yesterday. Merci, Merce.
Merce’s Trance Dance: Events that Bear Attending to
By Alicia Mosier
(Copyright 2001 Alicia Mosier)
When you come out of a Merce Cunningham concert, familiar sounds sound more articulate; walking takes on new dimensions. Cunningham, now 81, has been presenting his alchemy of movement, nature, time, and space for 54 years. The huge ovation that greeted him when he came on stage last night at the opening of his company’s season at New York’s City Center was another testament to the world’s continuing affection for him and for the things he has shown us.
Things like, for instance, that there need not be an “incident” or a purposeful action for there to be an event that bears attending to, or that movements can be stripped of almost everything recognizably dance-like and still work as dancing. Or, that movement and nature and time and space, in their infinite reverberations, are so beautiful. Throughout the evening, sentences like this kept popping into my mind: “You see the phrase as its parts,” and, “The same thing two ways.” Such Koan-like thoughts are what occur to you when you are utterly absorbed and your mind is just letting things in and out, which is the state into which Cunningham’s pieces draw you in their perfect objectivity.
When New York City Ballet performed “Summerspace” (1958) last year, and they did it so well, there was a dramatic impetus to the piece; I found myself looking for images, for meaning. In the performance the Cunningham dancers gave last night, I was looking at elements: balance, velocity, spatial relationships. There are probably no other dancers in the world with more control than these (it comes from low in the pelvis) and more calm in their bodies. Jennifer Goggans had me rapt from her first moment on stage, a warm, serious spirit coming through her modest, powerful, unbelievably controlled movement. She did everything like it was nothing at all, and somehow that made it all the more important to me to take in everything she did. (Later, seeing a child halfskipping down the sidewalk, I had the same reaction.) Paige Cunningham, Daniel Squire, Koji Minato, and Jean Freebury (great in a long, daunting essay on balance) were all just as fleet and aware and wonder-inducing.
The curtain rises and falls on a whole world in this piece, with its eternal-summer pointillist backdrop and costumes by Robert Rauschenberg and its score, like crickets breathing, by Morton Feldman; it seems to exist long before and long after the dance is over. Nature in the theater, someone once called it.
You see nature, too, in “RainForest” (1968), in the yawning and standing still and gentle animal nudging that Cedric Andrieux, Jonah Bokaer, and Jeannie Steele engage in at the beginning. Here, though, they do it amidst dozens of Andy Warhol’s floating silver pillows and to a creaky score by David Tudor, played by Paul De Marinis and Takehisa Kosugi. While “Summerspace” has survived looking as fresh as the day it was born, this piece looks thinner and more dated. Still, in its endearing close duets and long, long solos (Derry Swan’s, with a bent over head-shake and a series of slow, sculpted side battements, was especially gripping), it showed us plenty. To speak of Robert Swinston, his fretful face staring into the black, is to speak of artistry of the highest order: massively focused, every move a question or an incantation.
Is Cunningham’s work investigation, or is it play? It’s both, of course. For over half a century he has brought experimental art and music vibrantly into the mix of his work, as well, which makes the exploratory mood all the more intoxicating. Charles Long’s sculptures for “Way Station,” which premiered last night, get you excited right away. You don’t know whether to laugh or boggle when the curtain goes up on five almost creature-like pods that look like they’re made of melting taffy or brightly-colored glue dripped down from a Brobdignagian art class above the stage. Each has three stringy legs and three puddled feet touching the ground (“Tripods,” actually, is the name Long gives to his decor).
That the tall, three-legged shape of these sculptures leaves a perfect space for people underneath is a nice conceit. The dancers complete the decor (just as in “Summerspace”: if no one was moving in front of that backdrop, maybe all we’d see would be dots). Daniel Roberts hangs out under the yellow tripod for several minutes at the beginning; later Lisa Boudreau does the same, leaning on one leg like she’s waiting at some dream bus stop.
Stepping around and in and out of these huge, delicate “way stations” is no problem for the 16 deadly-precise dancers. (I love the way they smile, and blink.) The good-looking costumes by James Hall — beige bodysuits with vaguely Native American-themed printing up the sides of bell sleeves or one pant leg, even a little fringe on a couple of people — add warm mauves and rusts to the fingerpaint colors of the sculptures.
Elements cropped up in the work’s first part that to Cunningham connoisseurs might seem familiar: one found oneself waiting for the trio to come in, for a slow balance on half-point, for a deep bend down and to the side as the spine torques against the legs, and there they were. This first part meanders a little, mostly in arrangements of twos and threes and fours and people stepping in from the sides at wide intervals, everything on curves and planes. There’s a lot of speed, then a lot of slowness. (As the dancers complete the decor, the decor gives continuity to the dance.) A lovely passage featured three couples with winglike pairs of arms and surprising lifts at the end. Holley Farmer of the beautiful feet and the perfect technique was a fascinating, sure, mercurial presence.
Takehisa Kosugi’s score (which he played live), earlier scratchy and staticky, develops a wonderful case of schizophrenia in the second half: in come whacked-out harmonicas, hints of a carousel, spurts of klezmer clarinets. Three men bound in with a spark of vigor; three women follow; and from here on in it’s energy-and-focus cubed, more dynamic in shape and variety. Everybody sits down for a while, then bolts up and off the stage. There is an incredible sustained passage of balances in plie and half-point for one woman (a lot happened on one leg in this piece), big leaps for the men, and a phenomenal triple duet that ended with the men hurtling the women into the air and dropping them down again into a spin.
“Way Station” seemed more “composed,” with less random movement, than the other pieces on the program. (I heard one
woman at the interval say, “I sort of wish there’d been more running around.”) But the aesthetic of its creator — the exploration, the pure unexpectedness, the thrilling beauty, the gentleness, the fun — came through loud and clear, and it sent the audience into an ecstatic trance.