Nine Goodbyes

I. Terribly exciting
II. In it with them
III. A natural moment
IV. Loneliness, even
V. No one way
VI. “Well, it’s closer”
VII. There was John Cage
VIII. Denouement
IX. That’s where he really lived

I. It’s been interesting, as an audience member, to see the dynamic between preparing the dance world for this history, this legacy, this thing that’s going to happen, while still watching the company perform live. I think it’s terribly exciting, the tension between those two things: the opportunity to see live bodies do onstage, in the moment, what they’ve learned from their time with Merce, but also to know that this is almost in the past tense already. It’s a rare moment, because no other company of this magnitude has had a situation like this. We’re looking at the past and the present and the future mixed up all together . . . We’re always seeing a temporal, unstable, fleeting moment when we watch dance. The fact that this is ending has made all of those notions even more present for me. —Devika Wickremesinghe, 27, student at the Cunningham Studio (2005 ­– present)

Members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Split Sides, 2003. Photo by Tony Dougherty, courtesy Cunningham Dance Foundation.

II. Every time I go to a performance of the work, I want to go back. Once isn’t enough. I want to go over and over and over and just live in it. I’m not sure why that is. I don’t feel that with most things that I see . . . Even when I watch the company rehearse, the quiet and the focus—it’s very expansive and stimulating and at the same time very grounding and calming for me; I feel in it with them. It’s this whole atmosphere that I enter. I always feel like I’m in good hands when I watch Merce’s work. I somehow feel different in my own skin . . . I know they will license the work out to other people, but it’s just not the same as seeing people who studied the technique so ritually and fully. That is a huge loss with the disbanding of the company. To see the work done by Cunningham people—deeply, long-time-trained people—I will miss that so much. —Janet Charleston, faculty member at the Cunningham Studio (2001 – present)

III. I’ve been thinking about history and art movements and the way art movements end and other art movements begin and how history goes back and repeats itself. I believe that even though this era is ending, there’ll be a movement to revive and revisit his work in some way at another point in history. There’ll be some need to see it again. It will never be the same, because without him creating new work, it has a completely different spirit; my memory of working with him was that he was very, very attached and invested and passionate about creating new work . . . So philosophically, if we’re going to honor the spirit of creativity that makes his work alive and wonderful and present and radical, it’s a natural moment for it to end. But I really don’t believe that it’s a full ending. —Kimberly Bartosik, 45, former company member (198996)

Carolyn Brown in Merce Cunningham’s Walkaround Time (1968), with design by Jasper Johns. Photo by Oscar Bailey, courtesy Cunningham Dance Foundation.

IV. It’s going to be incredibly sad to see the company perform for the last time. But I know I’m also going to feel a sense of wishing I was up there, a sense of not belonging in a way, a loneliness, even. It’ll be hard for the four of us in the Repertory Understudy Group to watch, because we’ve felt like a part of it in our own little way, and we’ve wanted to be a bigger part of it. But there will be pride, too, such huge pride that we were a part of it in the small way that we were. —Stacy Martorana, 28, member of the Cunningham Dance Foundation’s Repertory Understudy Group, a k a the RUGs (2009present)

V. What’s really extraordinary about Merce is that if you look at a list of people who say they’ve been influenced or affected by him, there aren’t any two choreographers that are anything like each other . . . His greatest lesson, I think, was to allow you to discover your own voice, to follow it with passion, to suggest that there was no one way of making work. —Margaret Jenkins, 69, former teacher at Merce’s studio (19631970) and assistant in restaging his works (19671976)

VI. I did RainForest, on that stage at BAM, I think . . . There were a lot of subtle things in the movement that were mysteriously Merce, things that you never could get right. But the performance of them became your intention to try to get them right, you know? So that gave them an extra energy. There was one of those, the first one I can remember, in Variations V—something he wanted me to do with my hip. I would do something, and he would say, “Like this,” and I’d say, “Like this?” and he’d say, “No, not quite, more like this,” and he would show it again, and I’d say, “Okay, like this?” And he’d say, “Well that’s closer.” And it remained like that, “Well, it’s closer.” It was never wrong, but you know, it was never right, whatever that meant. —Gus Solomons, Jr., former company member (196568)

VII. Many times, many places . . . One of the times at BAM that I always remember was when the curtain opened, and there was John Cage sitting at a school desk, and the first sound you heard was the cork popping out of his champagne bottle, and he sat at the front of the stage, reading from his diary and drinking champagne, and that was the accompaniment for the dance. —Jane Gardner, 80, loyal audience member and student at the Cunningham Studio (1967present)

VIII. I’m a member of a small group of people, a few hundred at most, who toured with the company and remember parties in hotel rooms, Merce refilling our wine glasses surreptitiously and getting us drunk, bad affairs, good affairs, endless bus rides. The stories from a different era are not my stories specifically, but they’re really all the same story. And now that story is ending; it used to be shifting and mysterious and endless and is now finite. It’s a story of dissolution and severance packages and post-mortem plans. It’s denouement. I think in all of us there was a small part of our psyches that willfully lived in denial: The company would go on forever. We knew it couldn’t, but we thought it might. —Aaron Copp, 46, former MCDC production manager (199295) and lighting director (19982002)

IX. At the very end, actually in the last couple of weeks, he was still making new material. He wanted to go to the studio. That’s where he really lived. And it was not about rehearsing old stuff. It was about making something new. So that’s why I think he was right, although it’s painful, and there have been a lot of people wailing and complaining that the work should live on. But you don’t want it to live on if it can’t be brilliant. Because the work, at its best, is brilliant. —Carolyn Brown, 84, founding company member (1953 – 1973)

Contributor

Siobhan Burke

SIOBHAN BURKE is a writer and dancer based in Brooklyn. She contributes regularly to the New York Times and Dance Magazine.

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