Saying Goodbye to Merce Cunningham

by Chris Vitiello on February 6, 2011

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

We were playing at a school in New England. There was a little reception backstage afterwards. A girl came, a ballet dancer, and said “Your work is just like ballet.” There was a Chinese man standing next to her who either taught at the university or was part of it, and he said “Oh no, it looks very Chinese to me.” He was a nice man, and it was not a silly statement. I thought about it afterwards. “Of course, she sees what she thinks is ballet, whereas he sees other aspects and doesn’t see anything about ballet at all.” I realized that the eye tries to recognize what it already knows.—Merce Cunningham

This is what we will miss: Cunningham’s openness and generosity in making provocative yet non-deterministic dance works, with movement both virtuosic and mundane. As the company he founded at Black Mountain College in 1953 (just an afternoon’s drive to the west from here) brought its farewell Legacy tour through the Durham Performing Arts Center on Friday night, a wistful anticipation strangely charged the pre-curtain audience. We were there to see performances we love, and to say goodbye to a friend.

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

The brilliantly conceived program was a rich summation of Cunningham’s career as well as an ideal introduction to it. Duets (1980) shows how he used ballet as a form for everyday movement, the way a typeface is a form for a sentence. BIPED (1999), dazzlingly staged at the cavernous DPAC, exemplifies his later abstractions of the body into vectors and clouds of energy. And Sounddance (1975), representing classic Merce, concluded the night with his primal brand of narrative without story, accompanied by the startling sonic weirdness of David Tudor’s music.

I’d just seen the company present Suite for Five at Reynolds the evening before, and in that light, Duets seemed a throwback to its first decade. Male and female dancers, paired and often color-coordinated, stepped lightly through a warm, barren stage space. The curve of a Cunningham body is as lovely to the eye as a crescent moon. When Andrea Weber is lifted, back to back, in a mutual curve, her body becomes an offered hand. It brings an interesting sexual charge into the work: neither animal attraction, nor innocent, idealized love, nor androgyny or genderlessness. If those three nodes form a triangle, it’s somehow outside of that triangle.

Weber articulated this well in an interview last year. “I think [Cunningham] was very traditional. There is this clear message in the dance: Man supports woman. The main duet is almost always between a man and a woman, and it’s almost always tender. He was influenced by ballroom dance. I feel very female in Merce’s work.” Duets is a mannered pairing-off exercise, with features couples promenading coolly around the floor as secondary pairs come on upstage right and quickly curl off downstage right, concluding with a bloom of color and motion as all six couples come onstage at the end, drawing gasps.

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

After BIPED, I felt like I understood quantum physics a lot better. The lighting, staging, and video projection—onto a transparent scrim covering the entire front of the stage—signified as much if not more than the gold-clad dancers did. I quickly forgot the dancers were people as they vanished into a thick darkness along the back of the stage and video projections of lines moved across the scrim in front of them like the lightbar on a cosmic photocopier platen. The video also incorporated motion-capture animation of dancers converted into bright sketches, galactic clusters, and DNA-like lattices. The layers of movement and stillness lulled me into a deep, planetary torpor. I kept thinking about Charles and Ray Eames’ film “Powers of Ten.”

In the film, the rigidly linear perspective moves far out into space, and then down into an atom’s nucleus. The narrator draws attention to the alternation between great activity (the organization of a galaxy or the flurry of an electron shell) and great emptiness (the vast vacuum between galaxies or between the shell and the nucleus) at both the macro and micro scales of the known universe. BIPED reveals something similarly universal and essential.

The entrance/exit at the back of Mark Lancaster’s set for Sounddance is sometimes interpreted as vaginal. And although many fans of Cunningham dismiss such theorizing as too literal or contrary to Cunningham’s spirit, I think it’s actually kind of fun and interesting, and feel that his epigram at the top of this post more or less gives permission from the master himself. Dismissing interpretations lies fairly in the realm of opinion, but anyone who banishes interpretations lives on a terribly slippery slope. So I entered into Sounddance with the assignment to think about which side of the opening we might be on. Is the auditorium the womb or the world? Pretty quickly I saw, in the breadth of the choreography, how narrow the vaginal interpretation actually is.

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

The depersonalized dancers interact more like animals after they burst onstage—creatures with physical abilities and instincts but no self-awareness. They thrust and jerk within their quick curves and spins, investigating each other, then being investigated by another, satellites exchanging their gravities. Robert Swinston is the exception, playing an ambivalent role—a distractible god maintaining a pointless realm. At one point eight dancers move in unison while Swinston meanders with his head down in the back. At another point he assembles dancers forcibly into a chain. He’s not checking their Apgar scores; he’s toying with them, losing interest, growing bored, and then flinging them back through the hole.

Bombarded with Tudor’s formless electronic music—at turns resembling dolphins, birds, monkeys, insects, big cats; really any animal one can imagine, and a swift quadraphonic jungle-full of them at that—I couldn’t help but read the piece as a proto-language. Including elements of development while clearly not summing to a story, Sounddance has the bluntness of the few calls that animals need to make to survive and procreate. There’s no enunciation or gestural detail. It’s all bodies moving—a fantastic, kinetic celebration of the living body regardless of who might be in it.

It’s also a reminder that an artist’s accomplishments are themselves corporeal—a body of work. One that, for this company, has now been completed. The choice to close with Sounddance gave us the perfect final image—Swinston, dancing Cunningham’s part, charging through to the other side into Merce-only-knows-what.

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