At the Merce Fairby M.J. Thompson
Now, as mythology and nostalgia swell in the wake of Cunningham’s life and achievement, the movement matters more than ever. If Lincoln Center’s mid-July presentation “Merce Fair” was more Wal-Mart than high art—excessive programming of all things Cunningham; tables hawking posters, T-shirts and calendars; kids mauling Warhol’s silver clouds for RainForest (1968)—the day nevertheless provided a real opportunity to see the company at work and the ideas in action. Among the offerings, juxtaposed box-store style over the second and third floor of the Frederick P. Rose Hall, were family-friendly movement workshops; music concerts of works by John Cage, David Tudor, and Takehisa Kosugi; and films, including the rarely-shown 498 Third Avenue (1967) with its live soundtrack by the Velvet Underground and Charles Atlas’s Tour Movie Diaries (2000).
Cunningham, I think, would have approved of the fairground array and democracy of options. Yet, for all the possibilities, it was the dance, with its utter lack of pretense or preciousness, that held center. The director of choreography Robert Swinston, who remains an exacting interpreter and observer of the material, taught a company class, surely as riveting as any performance proper. I was struck by the centrality of ballet to the class, where port de bras, pliés, and relevés anchor the practice. But this is home-school ballet, full of eccentricities and amendments. Dancers begin with feet parallel. Think mountain pose rather than first position: The effect is to warm-up the spine, stabilize the core, and prepare bodies for the heady shifts in direction, line, and speed that so define Cunningham’s work.
There is no barre, liberating dancers into their surrounding space and demanding that they commit to the architecture of the body alone as the class progresses through warm-up—“the bounce sequence”—to material of increasing complexity and variety. Yes, Cunningham elided modern forms with ballet but Swinston’s class, accompanied by a single drummer, suggested wide-ranging influences for the technique and clarified its rhythmic expressivity, its rigorous layering of bodily tasks, and its plain, physical logic. It’s a vision so distinct that perhaps the attendant hyperbole of his fandom can be understood.
Later in the day, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performed two older works that arguably showed Cunningham at his most accessible. Squaregame (1976) evidences his and Cage’s enduring fascination with work and play, with popular forms and with everyday life. The company appears on a grid-like surface of white and bright green Astroturf, an abbreviated, post-modern football field. A cluster of large canvas gym bags serves as counterpoint to the dance, emphasizing weightedness and resonating as dancers hold, lift, toss, and drag around the bags and, often, other dancers. Three cheers for Daniel Madoff’s reprise of Cunningham’s final solo, where mimetic gestural details beckon familiar meanings—hand blowing a kiss? hand to head in angst?—only to reject any straightforward story-line with an ecstatic, air-bound performance. Duets (1980) is lighter fare: a dancey dance, with a sunny outlook. Six couples perform a series of duets, one after the other, wearing bright skirts, leotards, and scarves knotted at the neck à la Jerome Robbins; the unusual lifts, jumps, entrances and exits come with an almost presentational delivery.
Much has been written about the Repertory Understudy Group (RUG), the young up-and-comers with whom Merce spent much of his later years. They danced the toughest choreography of the day in Inventions MinEvent, which linked sequences from the repertoire with newer material developed before Cunningham’s passing. I was riveted by their physicality, their intensity, and the astonishing difficulty of the material. When the work ended abruptly, as dancers came together, reaching across space and finally holding hands, the surprise shift from speed to stasis left me reeling.
At the same time, the abundance of and prolonged-ness of the stares and smiles between the RUG dancers, while not forced, were somehow more persistent than in previous Cunningham performances I’ve seen. While these expressions mark the dancers’ subjectivity and delight in motion, they also imply narrative and infuse the choreography with more particular characters and sentiments than perhaps its maker intended. Cunningham gave us something harder. Not merely the eccentric lines of the moving body as he saw it. Not just the viral effects of uncommon speeds and rhythms as we lived it, but respite from singular and fixed meaning, in the drama emerging from the collision of effort, motion, and fierce concentration. Here, dancers swap more legible emotion for focus, and the play of attention becomes its own drama.
MJ THOMPSON is a writer living in Brooklyn and Montreal. She is an assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies at Concordia University, Montreal.