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Merce Cunningham Dance Company / Joyce Theater, NYC / December 14 – 19, 2004

“Presented without intermission, each Event consists of complete dances, excerpts of dances from the repertory, and often new sequences arranged for the particular performance and place, with the possibility of several separate activities happening at the same time—to allow not so much an evening of dances as the experience of dance.”

The shortest and best way to describe a Merce Cunningham Event is in the choreographer’s own words. A series of eight Events took place at the Joyce just as the town was launching into full-blown winter solstice hysteria. In the company of the wealthy intelligentsia and a cluster of my colleagues, I saw the gala opening night performance on December 14. Baffling though Cunningham’s work can be, it seemed to me, once again, luminous in its perception, invention, and sophistication.

Here are some random notes. (I assume that, under the circumstances, a kaleidoscope of fragments is in order.)

The dancers’ appearances and disappearances—the famous Cunningham flock-of-birds effect—feel swifter and lighter than ever. Blink and you’ve missed one. In flight, the bodies look weightless, though never flat. Grounded, they combine oak-tree sturdiness with filigreed delicacy.

Suddenly, fearlessly, the figures plunge off the vertical into pitched arabesques or deep supported leans that suggest putting one’s whole being—soul as well as body—into a partner’s hands. Or, perhaps, self-immolation.

It seems to me that watching Cunningham is like taking a nature walk. The shifting landscape you scan offers many beautiful (or fascinating or eerie) things, but in an entirely evenhanded way. It is your own wandering view, guided by your own temperament, that selects which of them to notice, which of them to enhance through deeper contemplation, which of them to elaborate with your personal fantasies. The choreographer has chosen to abstain from dictating in these matters. He is present in the scheme, absolutely, but mysterious and silent.

A man stretched out at length on the ground slowly rolls over, wrapped in his own arms. His body seems as heavy as stone. Nothing leads up to this. Nothing leads away from it. It just happens.

Much Cunningham dancing looks like a distant branch of classical ballet. Evidence: the poised carriage of the body; the long, harmonious line; the insistently pointed feet; the attention paid to equilibrium; the unfailing composure and control; the idea that grace lies in harmony. And yet contradictory evidence exists everywhere. It’s as if the ancestors of what we see today at ABT or the Kirov and what we see at a Cunningham concert had once shared a dance continent subsequently split in two by a geologic cataclysm, the separated halves then evolving alone. Of course pedestrian vocabulary and animal motion play key parts in Cunningham’s dance language, too, and he has never forgotten entirely the fact that he was once a key performer with Martha Graham.

People frequently talk about the bird imagery in Cunningham’s work, and then the animal imagery—gazelles and suchlike loping across the plains—but you don’t hear so much about the sheer weirdness of the stuff that conjures up distinctly human encounters and endeavors: People flinging themselves about, all the while maintaining careful control. Bodies folding and twisting into impossible postures. Peculiar cantileverings and oddities of balance. Phrases that would pass as perfectly conventional dancing if the performer weren’t traveling backwards.

In these cases, the operation of the body may follow anatomical logic or just as easily contradict it—often in the space of a single phrase. Figures cooperate with each other or, just as often, confront or thwart each other’s expectations. Either way, there is no reference to an accepted norm of behavior. This is a society in which all the usual givens exist only to be skewed—and yet it’s incontrovertibly human. Cunningham, via his deft dancers, provides the text of the action. The viewer provides the subtext, and it is, invariably, a very strange one indeed.

Cunningham’s work contains many moments of stasis in which the dancer appears to continue traveling or gesturing in his own imagination.

Because Cunningham choreography firmly closes the door to melodrama (even conventional drama, to say nothing of characters or personalities ), it has a certain evenness of tone. Everything is set forth with the same elegance and equanimity. Some spectators find this excruciatingly boring.

Often, in Cunningham’s work, people fall to the ground, suddenly, and are quickly resurrected. I’ve often wondered what’s behind this recurring image—the falling into stillness succeeded by a rising back into action. Is it a metaphor for the nature of dancing? I know Cunningham would say—at the age of 85, he must be so tired of saying it, with that dogged patience of his that is nothing if not heroic—that it is not a metaphor for anything; it just is.

What delights me most about this choreography, and keeps me going when my patience with it flags, is its intelligence. It makes much of the other choreography I look at, whatever visceral or emotional thrills it may provide, seem stupid.

Often the performers display the antic beauty of traditional circus performers. They are extraordinary in their fleetness, their strength; their acuity, their devotion. Here are their names: Cédric Andrieux, Johan Bokaer, Lisa Boudreau, Julie Cunningham, Holley Farmer, Jennifer Goggans, Rashaun Mitchell, Koji Mizuta, Marcie Munnerlyn, Daniel Roberts, Daniel Squire, Jeannie Steele, Robert Swinston, Andrea Weber.

Jackie Monnier’s décor for the December 14 Event suggested—appropriately for the season—a winter carnival in the sky, and the program ended with some ebullient group shenanigans that brought to mind a Mexican fiesta. I couldn’t resist asking a Cunningham expert and devotee, where this last material came from, and she told me (Squaregame, 1976). Still, one of the most futile things one can do at an Event—and dance critics, being veteran Merce watchers, are most prone to it—is to rack one’s brains trying to identify the choreographic shards, put them back in their repertory context. It’s a fine parlor game, I suppose, but a profitless distraction from the business of seeing and the business, central to Cunningham’s Zen-infused aesthetic, of experiencing life in the moment.

© 2004 Tobi Tobias

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