Merce Cunningham waves good-bye

Merce Cunningham's "RainForest" 1968/photo by James Klosty, courtesy of Merce Cunningham Dance Company


The mood last Saturday night in Seattle’s Paramount Theater was reminiscent of a homecoming game, odd for a farewell performance of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, dancing there for the last time on the company’s Legacy Tour.

Or was it really that odd?  Merce, as everyone called him, whether they knew him or not, was, after all a son of the Pacific Northwest, born in Centralia, Washington in 1919, educated at Seattle’s Cornish School of the Arts, where he met John Cage, his partner in life and contemporary art. So the whoops and cheers as the fourteen dancers took their final curtain call following a two-night run were more than appropriate: The last dancers he trained had given their considerable all for one of the great American artists of the 20th and 21st centuries.

“XOVER,” which opened the first program, was made in 2007 with decor based on a painting by Robert Rauschenberg and a score by Cage, Cunningham’s original co-conspirators.  It’s a colorful, witty piece, and like all Cunningham’s work it contains no story and no drama, only dancing of amazing clarity, as the performers crisscross the stage deploying their limbs with an angularity echoing the slashing lines of Rauschenberg’s assemblage of images.

 Costumed in white leotards and tights — Cunningham was as interested in revealing the workings of the dancers’ bodies as Balanchine was with his “black and white ballets” — 12 dancers, including former Jefferson Dancer and OBT student Marcie Munnerlyn, perform a series of solos, duets and trios with both ease and control — Cunningham technique, chance procedures or not, is all about control. Cunningham’s work isn’t about displays of virtuosity, although at one point in “XOVER” a male dancer executes a leap like a joyful creature, a cat maybe, or a fish, eliciting the same kind of gasp as Baryshnikov in mid-air.

“XOVER” provides a completely visual experience as does all of Cunningham’s work — in most instances the dancers don’t hear the music until the dress rehearsal, and audiences, who still find scores by such composers as Cage, David Tudor, and Gavin Bryars difficult to enjoy, can tune them out and simply watch. They’re missing something of course — sound, as Cunningham pointed out in an interview for a PBS “American Masters” special, is as much a part of our lives as walking and breathing, and many of these compositions are what Edgard Varese, grandfather of electronic music, called organized sound.

The 1982 “Quartet” followed, its music Tudor’s “Sextet for Seven” (Merce having his quiet joke), in which five dancers this time in colorful tights and leotards move their sleek way through a series of slower patterns of duets, solos and even an actual quartet.  Here, Cunningham was exploring (with perhaps a nod to Martha Graham for whom he danced, memorably, for six years) extremely detailed movement of the neck and shoulders, a bend here, a shrug there. In contrast to “XOVER,” there is a softness and pliancy to the choreography, although at one point the tone shifts to aggression as a trio transforms into whirling propellers.

“Biped” closed the first program. I wish they had done it Saturday night as well; this was my third viewing of a piece so rich in visual imagery you can’t take it all in without seeing it many more times than that. Suffice it to say that at the age of 80, on the cusp of the 21st century, Merce made a masterpiece of contemporary art, never mind dance, and it occurred to me, a decade before his death, a very particular vision of paradise.  NY Times critic Alastair Macaulay called it the most exciting dance piece of the Nineties, and while I haven’t seen them all, and he hasn’t either, it’s hard to argue against that.

Multi-media dances existed of course well before 1999. Lucinda Child’s “Dance” was made twenty years earlier than “Biped,” and Merce himself began exploring film and dance considerably earlier than that. But “Biped” is different. To make this stunning work, Merce, who had been using a computer program called Life-Forms as a choreographic tool since 1989, collaborated with Shirley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser, to create decor and movement with motion-capture technology. It starts, as his dances often do, with a solo performer on stage, doing signature long-limbed extensions. That dancer is joined by a number of dancers performing unison movement. There are elegant, rapid spins that make you catch your breath like when you see particularly handsome fireworks, or, as my colleague Sandra Kurtz pointed out, the Northern lights. Huge Life-Forms images of the dancers — their movement, not their bodies — get projected to join a dance that is filled with light, action juxtaposed with stillness, jumps (Merce loved to jump and could do it like nobody’s business), gestures with a classical Asian accent, and partnering that looks just a little impertinent.  These dancers are at play in the fields of the lord, and Merce, it seems to me, is telling us all to lighten up a bit.

I wondered if Saturday night’s show would prove an anti-climax, but 1980’s “Duets” showed Merce in yet another mood, an exploration of partnering that while it paired men and women is much more about the relationship between people who move differently rather than one about gender difference. It’s a nice piece, as was Thursday’s “Quartet,” but for me, “RainForest” made 43 years ago in collaboration with Andy Warhol, who made the decor of silver clouds (read “mylar balloons”) was the epiphany on a program that ended with  2003’s “Split Sides. “Split Sides” can be construed as two pieces, with separate scores by Radiohead and Sigur Ros, decor by Robert Heishman and Catherine Yass and costumes by James Hall, that get performed in an order determined by chance procedures, a method originated by Cage, involving the use of the “I Ching.”

The audience was made privy to the casting of the dice (yes, only one), narrated for lack of a better word by company archivist David Vaughan, who knows more about Merce and his collaborators than anyone living or dead. “Split Sides,” no matter what music or decor or costumes come first or second, or how they’re mixed,  is a highly sophisticated, urbane piece, intricately patterned, very elegant, with the group dancing resembling a force of nature. And as replete with variety and visual interest as it is, it is just a little too long.

Not so “RainForest,” seen in Portland in 2001 when White Bird brought the company to town. This piece proclaims Merce’s Pacific Northwest roots as does no other on these two programs.  The dancers are clad in flesh-colored tights and leotards, their movement is mostly creaturely, simian in places, and often very funny as they quickstep, crouch, run, prance on stiff legs like some kind of insect, Merce balancing stillness with activity that replicates animals’, even those on two legs, on a walk through the forest.  Coming home on the train the next day, looking out the window at Puget Sound, rimmed by trees with turning leaves, shimmering through pouring rain, I saw that piece again and again, and the landscape itself through new eyes.

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company performed "Interscape" with sets by Robert Rauschenberg during its last visit to Portland in 2004/Photo courtesy of White Bird

It was hard to watch the six works presented in Seattle last week without sadness, for we will never see them again in the same way, if we see them at all.

Cunningham  was three months past his 90th birthday when he died in his New York City apartment in July of 2009.  It was his wish that the company he founded in 1953 at Black Mountain College go on a two year international tour, give its last performance on New Year’s Eve at the New York Armory (where visual artists ushered in American modern art six years before he was born), and then… disband.

There is a Cunningham Foundation, and the dancers whom Merce trained are authorized to stage his work on other companie. So maybe all is not lost, any more than it was with Balanchine’s death, though in the case of Martha Graham, that’s open to question.

Merce well knew what an ephemeral art form dancing is. “You have to love dancing to stick to it,” he once wrote.  “It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.”

But for the viewer, of “Biped,” of “Rain Forest,” of “Summerspace,” of “XOVER” and many others, there are those single fleeting moments, when you catch your breath and beauty feeds your soul.

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