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    Merce Cunningham in Merce Cunningham
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    Merce Cunningham

    Goodbye, Gentle Soul

    Merce Cunningham and the end of the Cunningham Dance Company


    Because I went not to review but to experience the final Cunningham Dance Company performance, the following is a somewhat personal take on the show and the legacy of Merce Cunningham.

    Choreography by: Merce Cunningham.
    Dancers: Brandon Collwes, Dylan Crossman, Emma Desjardins, Jennifer Goggans, John Hinrichs, Daniel Madoff, Rashaun Mitchell, Marcie Munnerlyn, Krista Nelson, Silas Riener, Jamie Scott, Robert Swinston, Melissa Toogood, Andrea Weber.
    Music by: Brian Eno, David Tudor, Radiohead, Sigur Ros.
    Costumes by: Suzanne Gallo, James Hall.
    Lighting design by: David Covey, Aaron Copp, James F. Ingalls.
    Brooklyn Academy of Music
    December 10, 2011

    Like many or most, I have always been conflicted about Cunningham performances. When his pieces work, they feel deep, startling, and inundating. When they don't, they sit there awkwardly, taxing dancers with heavy movements for no apparent reason and seeming to have no flow.

    In so many ways, though, Merce Cunningham dynamited all previous conceptions of dance and worked with the fragments that landed. And he did this decade after decade, always finding new things to explode. Yet it was the ancient world of Nature that continually fascinated him and inspired some of his best pieces, like Pond Way, part of the final performance.

    Movement-wise, Cunningham technique is a fully developed system that can create superb company members or stabilize and strengthen dancers at any level in ways that ballet or any other technique cannot. The constant admonition in class to go bigger and further in movements and space pushes everyone to go past their previous limits and surprise themselves.

    Merce's embrace of Chance as an important, even essential ingredient in choreography is also a vital contribution. The theatrics of five dice rolls before the final performance of Split Sides to choose the order of two sets of movement, costumes, lighting, background art and music is good entertainment but also makes the good point that things are often better with the spark of uncertainty. It is the paradox of Cunningham that he often structured and timed pieces by rolls of the dice and then rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed pieces until they were embedded in his dancers' brains and bodies and were no longer random.

    Yet all these rehearsals were done in silence, with music added only at the last minute, in dress rehearsal or even performance. Sometimes this "music" was nothing but noise, structured in a way that only made sense to the composer — yes, I'm conflicted about John Cage, too. Sigur Ros and Radiohead both created strong, dynamic soundscapes for Split Sides, though, and the chance pairings of music and movement felt powerful.

    And, probably from the very beginning of the company, on its first one-van, no-budget tour, Merce collaborated with visual art giants like Robert Rauschenberg; Roy Lichtenstein's huge black and white dot painting dwarfs and magnifies Pond Way. Though rarely straying too far from unitards (Comme des Garcons pillow costumes excepted), color, texture and art spark costumes too, as in the vivid black and white patterns on Split Side dancers.

    Unitards are the icon of the group aesthetic of the Cunningham company, where dancers do stand out but are always abstractions, interchangeable elements of a whole. But it seems best to end with an homage to all the dancers who have come through the company over the years. It is beautiful and even startling to see how dancers flower and develop over years in the Cunningham company — Jamie Scott, Emma Desjardins and Jennifer Goggans currently stick in my head. But it would be a long list of first names — anyone who follows the company likely has their own — that became stars in this anonymous constellation. Jonah, Jeannie, Banu, Derry are some of mine.

    It seems impossible that the Cunningham company will disappear at the end of the year, but any dancer who worked in the company or even had the experience of getting thoughtful movement advice from Merce can appreciate that he really was a unique magical soul who cannot truly be replaced or channeled. The love in the air at the end of the final BAM performance seemed a fitting blessing for a creative life lived fully and productively to the very end.

    DECEMBER 12, 2011

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