Cunningham’s Last Dance and Last Chance

by Adam Sobsey on February 7, 2011

the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in "Sounddance" (photo: Tony Dougherty)

I attended both nights of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s farewell performances at DPAC, and they caused me to remember something essential about Cunningham’s work: You can watch the same dance two nights in a row—or, for me, in the case of Sounddance, two nights in a row after having seen it several times in a couple of weeks, 17 years earlier—and have two entirely different experiences, while simultaneously being aware that it’s the same dance. I instantly recognized phrases I’d seen in February 1994, but also felt like I’d never seen Sounddance in my life. The sheer density of stage activity in Sounddance and BIPED (less so in Duets)  is impossible to absorb in one viewing. You can almost literally watch two different strands of dancing from night to night.

That might make you feel that Cunningham’s work is intentionally lording its complexity over you, as though to encourage you to feel inferior to it, like you might in reading, say, the source of Sounddance’s title, Finnegans Wake. But if that were really the case, Cunningham’s work would be off-putting, and I suppose it is a little vulnerable to the charge of lofty self-regard, although I don’t agree with that criticism. The response of Cunningham’s audiences—both the specific ones at DPAC and his lifelong audience—testify to how inviting the dances are, and to how unnecessary it is to “acquire a taste for them.” I know two people who saw Cunningham’s work for the first time this past weekend, and they were both instantly hooked. They felt like they “got it” without knowing much of anything about what it was they were supposed to “get” beforehand. They had a visceral response to the dances, not a cerebral one; or perhaps a primarily visceral one as well as a cerebral one.

Merce Cunningham

Why is that, I wondered later? Cunningham’s choreography is non-narrative, non-psychological, non-“emotional” (although I had a whopping emotional reaction to some of it). It isn’t formally rhythmic, in that it doesn’t have dancers stepping in time to the score—you can’t relate to it at the level of regular, metered rhythm. It is heavily technical, often austere. It exists outside most of our usual ways of perceiving, receiving, even enjoying. Furthermore, Cunningham’s dances lack central activity—there’s nothing more or less meaningful about the middle of the stage, where we’re taught to look for what’s “important,” than there is about the sides. (I noticed again this weekend how little of Cunningham’s action takes place in the traditional power spot, upstage center.)

the MCDC in "Sounddance" (photo: Tony Dougherty)

You’d think that would be frustrating, but I concluded after the weekend’s performances that it’s actually what gives the work its complexity, and the sense that the complexity is there for anyone to explore. The non-centrality is not only not an obstacle, it’s precisely the key to the pleasures of Cunningham (I love it that he was born in a town called Centralia). You’re not “missing the point” because the Cunningham stage doesn’t have the traditional vanishing-point perspective; there’s no central cynosure that is escaping your notice.

Instead, Cunningham is handing the kaleidoscope to the viewer and letting us spin the image around—allowing for a kind of spectating that is, according my colleague Chris Vitiello, “non-deterministic.” The dance is anywhere (and everywhere) you watch it. In that way, Cunningham’s art is some of the most generous and respectful I’ve encountered, because it honors something in the audience that so few artists are willing to trust: its intelligence. Let’s meet in the middle, Cunningham seems to be saying. He’s legendary for his use of chance operations, and to me that includes—perhaps, even begins with—the audience’s rolling of the dice of his dances.

Holley Farmer & Lisa Boudreau in "BIPED" (photo: Stephanie Berger)

But reminding myself of Patricia Lent’s firm insistence that “Merce was extremely clear about what he wanted,” the sequencing of the three dances in the program was of interest to me. There were two dances, Duets and Sounddance, of about 20 minutes each, and one, BIPED, that was a little longer than both put together. You’d think that the logical thing to do would be to put the first two on one side of the intermission and the latter on the other, for temporal balance. But that is merely a convention, and Cunningham was seldom conventional. It’s also not in the spirit of the dances themselves, which rightly dictated their own arrangement (no chance for chance there). Thus, Duets opened the evening, followed by the long centerpiece, BIPED. After the break, the 18-minute Sounddance stood alone, so that intermission actually fell about two thirds of the way into the program.

Why? Simple. This was a classic case of appetizer, main course and dessert: A bright, palate-waking Duets, with its quasi-balletic nod to traditionalism and its bright, pastel-colored costumes; a dense, chewy, layered, spectacular entree in BIPED, after which we absolutely needed a break to digest what we’d so far consumed; and then the irresistible delectation of Sounddance. You couldn’t really have arranged the three dances any other way. The vast BIPED would have overwhelmed and overstuffed us had it loomed all by itself, too dive-into-the-deep-end as a starter and too dark and disruptive as a closer. The almost feral Sounddance would have shot everyone’s wad had it come first, and, as Vitiello noted, Robert Swinston‘s final dash as Merce’s surrogate through the curtain was the necessary ending for the evening.  Duets would have been an insubstantial final note.

I left DPAC thinking that chance operations have to happen in a determined context, as indeed all of Merce Cunningham’s explorations did. The program gave me the precise parameters I needed to do his dances with him.

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