Celebrating Ninety Years of Merce Cunningham on April 16, 2009

Merce Cunningham’s new Nearly Ninety opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Spring Gala like a rock show through a kaleidoscope. The iconic choreographer’s 90th birthday gave plenty of weight to the event, but the presence of post-punk legends Sonic Youth added an amped up, party vibe. Before the dancers came on stage, the audience had a long time to soak up the loud, fuzzy distortion and the angular spectacle of lights and guitar shadows.

Cunningham dancers. Credit: Stephanie Berger.

When the dancers did enter, they came in pairs, slow and deliberate, then running and whirling. As the evening unfolded, Romeo Gigli’s unitards morphed from mostly-black to mostly-white, a few panels at a time, and then fresh blue replaced stark black. We saw dancers in beautiful positions; witnessed Holley Farmer’s extraordinary presence and Rashaun Mitchell’s incredible jump. Phenomenal moments repeatedly occurred when, with utmost control, dancers slowly rolled down as if to touch their toes, while staying up off their heels in a high releve. But sometimes, as if for counterpoint, the movement was so fast or unnatural, the dancers looked as if they could barely pull it off. There were notable solos, but duets and trios dominated. These dancers were not alone. Often they built on each other, creating something more than themselves. Against the scrim, we were treated to molten psychedelia and dancing smoke.

My friend and I were talking about the miracles of coincidence that occur in Cunningham’s work during the intermission. She was explaining how perfect it was that the backdrop projection changed to rippling water right as the dancers finished creating the tree, creating a nature tableau. Creating the tree? “You know, the part where they built that tree?” It was that concrete to her, but I just saw a cluster with one dancer on another’s shoulders. At least, I think that’s the part she was talking about.

Part of the beauty of Cunningham’s work is that there’s a lot of room for free association. He is well known for using chance operations to inject randomness and create outcomes he could not have devised. Like his long-term partner and collaborator, John Cage, Cunningham has used chance to determine major compositional elements, such as the number of dancers on stage, the direction they face, and the movements themselves. Often this was done by listing possibilities on pieces of paper, then drawing them randomly, or by following the pattern of a random source, such as words on a page or imperfections on a sheet of paper. Like Rorschach’s inkblots, one’s interpretation often reflects as much about the viewer as the work itself. My self-described hippie companion sees a tree; my mathematical brain focuses on ratios and rhythms.

Often, in Cunningham dances, even these abstract relationships in time and place still lead back to nature. In the second half of Nearly Ninety, there is a section with dancers standing square to the audience, evenly spaced and stretching their arms up and then to the side. Initially, it’s just a few bodies, but more join them. I admired the structure and the forms, but it also made me think of animals nesting. There was something about the gathering mass and the simple, deliberate movement (signaling?) that reminded me of a population coming together with a basic, primal purpose. Perhaps this is what Cunningham had in mind. A book of his nature drawings, Other Animals, reveals a preoccupation with birds, while other of his dances have conjured animal images, more or less explicitly. But it could also just be coincidence. To paraphrase Cunningham’s guiding philosophy, art is a truer representation of nature when it discards conscious imitation, surrendering to chance.

For all the talk of indeterminacy in the Cunningham oeuvre, though, it’s hard to tell how much material is actually set by chance. A performance I saw of Split Sides in 2003 featured a moment of such incredible synchronicity that I could swear the dancer’s movement actually created the corresponding sound in the score; it looked that deliberate. But before the show, the choreographer had in fact chosen the pairing of dance and music by rolling dice. On the other hand, much of Cunningham’s work that appears abstract or random may have been constructed as a calculated statement. Former Cunningham dancer Carolyn Brown recounted sources and possible intentions of his early dances that had long gone unnoticed by critics and audiences in her memoir, Chance and Circumstance. I was most shaken by her assertion that Second Hand (1970) ends with a meditation on the death of Socrates. When she connects the dots, I see it, but I would never have put together that reading on my own.

Keeping this in mind, I wonder what secrets of meaning Nearly Ninety holds. I can only guess. It’s an occasional piece, a birthday present from Cunningham to himself, so perhaps he is reflecting on the last nine decades. There are quiet moments, for sure. But it doesn’t feel nostalgic. It has too much dazzle.

Maybe it’s a manifesto. For starters, though this is true of all his work, Nearly Ninety couldn’t have been created by anyone else. It’s so Merce. He may have forever changed the dance world with his ideas about structure and content, but his movements are rarely imitated: ballet’s precise lower body and rounded arms juxtaposed against the more pliable back of modern dance (the early, formal modern dance he studied with Martha Graham, not the loosey-goosey, anything-goes modern dance prevalent today). Nothing else looks like it. So of course Nearly Ninety has his movement. It also has touches of his humor. The first time one dancer gets hoisted onto another’s shoulders, the abruptness looks pretty silly. Really, the whole thing is kind of ridiculous, if you think about it: fantastic dancers performing odd-looking steps, a well-dressed audience of rich donors and dance-world big wigs primed with cocktails, and Sonic Youth making crazy noises back there in a sculpture by architect Bernadette Tagliabue that looks like Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice house. On acid. That rotates. And those trippy projections by Franc Aleu are so beautiful it’s hard for me to pay attention to the dance. All this is to commemorate nine decades of life, including 55 years of Cunningham’s work presented at BAM. It’s hilarious, right? How cosmically absurd.

So I don’t know if Nearly Ninety is a manifesto, but it could be an affirmation, a showy display of what life and art can be. Toward the end of the evening, the dancers start to smile. He’s used happy faces before, but it’s not necessarily what one expects at a Cunningham concert. In general, the piece does not seem preoccupied with death, and this comforts me.

There is a section that might speak to mortality, however. A platform extends out from the second floor of the house sculpture, like an entry plank for a spaceship. Julie Cunningham comes out, slight and graceful with a bare head. She looks like an androgynous ballerina. On her high perch, she moves very slowly, gently undulating but never moving far from an upright position. Action continues below her on the stage, but she is isolated from it; she really seems to be from another world. I see parallels between Merce and Julie: small and remote, inhabiting another sphere.

At the curtain call, everyone stands except for Merce (and everyone smiles except Kim Gordon, Sonic Youth’s bassist/vocalist, whose cool is unmatched). Dancing and life have taken their toll on Cunningham’s body, and he remains in a wheelchair, but he’s beaming like a gleeful child as, one after another, Significant People give their remarks honoring the man. I learn that when former BAM executive director Harvey Lichtenstein had wanted to dance, Cunningham told him he’d better find another day job. So in addition to “changing the way we look at dance” and “making us all connoisseurs of chance,” Cunningham can also take some credit for the career of an influential New York arts administrator and the major role BAM now plays in the cultural landscape.

We all show respect, whether from the stage or from the house. Framed this way, it’s hard not to see Nearly Ninety as a reflection or a manifesto—something all encompassing and commemorative. I’m a fraction of his age, in awe of his accomplishments, and inspired by his incessant need to create. Cunningham has always needed to make dances. What an amazing thing—that even as his abilities fade, he’s still driven to work, still crafting beautiful and strange moments.

Contributor

Mary Love Hodges

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