The Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the Joyce Theater, December 2004
The things in the story are symbols, as it were, only of themselves.
Richard Howard, on Chekhov
Experiencing one of Merce Cunningham’s Events is to see a seamless, intermissionless hour (or so) of dance excerpts, combined in a novel context; experiencing eight Events over a week is to receive a philosophy. Something about life, and how singular our points of view, and something about perception, and how it is colored by our surroundings. To see the same dance excerpt on successive nights with different costumes, decor, and music, with different things coming before it and after is to begin to understand the dance apart from these additional elements, as just dance itself. As steps, as phrases, as figures, as images, as particles and as waves, with movement the all and everything. And with stillness not the absence of all movement, but the presence of all movement, as white is the presence of all color.
The Events at the Joyce Theater ran from Tuesday, December 14th through Sunday, December 19th, 2004. There were four distinct Events—call them #1, #2, #3, and #4—which ran in order, and then repeated over the weekend, which included two matinees. As the company archivist, David Vaughan, and Robert Swinston, who is the assistant to the choreographer, noted in a preliminary presentation at the Joyce Soho, the material dated from the 1960s to the week before, and indeed there were excerpts recognizable to someone familiar with the Cunningham repertory, including a large chunk of Change of Address (1992), and a fantastic chunk of Winterbranch (1964), with the latter presented in its own special outfits—namely, black jumpsuits—and its own almost completely dark, glancing, harsh light. This was unusual for Events—I don’t know of any other dance for which this is done—when the material is usually stripped of its usual presentation context. Indeed, at the Joyce, the sets for each night were different, though some of the costumes repeated
All of the sets were specific to this season, and newly minted, as was the music, curated by composer John King, and also different at each performance. As ever, it is important to Merce Cunningham to show his work alongside that of current working artists. The artists were Jackie Monnier, Robert Gober, Maya Ciarrocchi, Gabriel Orozco, Heidi Cody, Christian Marclay, Barbara Robertson, and Karlos Carcamo, each working for the occasion, or adapting to it. The costumes were all by James Hall, the resident wardrobe supervisor, and the composers, in various combinations, were David Behrman, John King, George Lewis, Ikue Mori, Marina Rosenfeld, and Christian Wolff. Stephan Moore, the sound supervisor, accomplished miracles of audibility and balance (what with the composers seated on opposite sides of the theater, playing their own scores). The lighting director, Josh Johnson, served and supported the work admirably, never sacrificing visibility, but working in a complete range from bright to somber, thus underlining the intrinsic dramatic lability of the choreography.
Event #3 included not only Winterbranch but also, in order, Kronos, which is material from Events with the Kronos Quartet performed in 2003, and then Four Lifts, which is also Events material, migrating from one to another. There was then a passage from Installations (1996), and a duet from Points in Space (1986). Then came a bit of Fielding Sixes (1980), and a really magical slow motion segment of Walkaround Time (1968) that the company refers to as the Falls. While this list will not mean anything to you if you cannot visualize the work, it will nonetheless give you a sense of the range of just one of these evenings to go on with the list, citing Cross Currents (1964) and Changing Steps (1975). Then came the longish excerpt of Winterbranch, and then Scramble (1967), the part the dancers call Jigs and Skips from Roaratorio (1983), Holly Farmer’s incredible solo from Loose Time (2002), and the finale of Points in Space (1986).
To a Mercehead, this is a playlist of golden oldies, but to even the casual reader, a broad swathe of work is indicated. And this was just one night. In all, there was about three and one half hours of material performed over four nights, with each of the four programs adding some things in and dropping some things out to make up one hour and fifteen minutes. Some Events were drier than others. #3, which was also repeated as #7, had the greatest variety, contrast, pacing. #4 had an astonishing performance of 10’s with Shoes in which the company fulfilled the weird promise of an advertising poster, dating from 1964 during the company’s world tour, when David Vaughan saw it in Prague. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company, it read, “in the style of West Side Story.”
Funny! Yet wearing bell bottoms and dresses and crop tops and other red and black street clothing (costumes dating from the Events at the American Express Building) and dancing in front of a set depicting smashed up taxi-cabs, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company light-footed it—they actually do wear jazz shoes, and socks—as stylishly as any Sharks and Jets ever did. The dance came back a few nights later dressed in dappled tropical unitards, and, as is usual when the dancers wear them like that, the socks looked dopey and the shoes dopier. And the dance, less jazzy. But of course it wasn’t. Different outfits, different set, same dance. There is a moral, here, in the experience of Event #4. Something along the lines of “See not what things are not, but what they are.”
And so it went, Event after Event. Just changing one’s seat from night to night made things look different. With Merce Cunningham there is no such thing as same old, same old. With him, events and Events conspire to accomplish that ultimate goal of the theater: to make the familiar strange, and the strange familiar. Having originally composed his repertory without reference to the music which ultimately accompanies it, and without seeing the decor, Cunningham in Events sets the choreography free again, releasing it even from its own framework—that is, from the overarching structures of the dances, which are extremely carefully devised structures. The extrapolated episodes that make up a single Event teem with incident, and are rich with encounters. They are a kind of variety act, and yet they have an overall shape, for their beginnings are often devised for the space, and their endings are most often real endings—that is, actual endings of dances from the Cunningham repertory.
For it is not true that in Cunningham there are no beginnings, middles, and ends. It is only true that there is no apparent story. But story and structure are not the same thing, any more than style and technique. Many of the dances have recognizably individual styles—some have several—and they all employ Cunningham technique.
Aside from their richness as a viewing experience, the Events are clearly an enriching performance experience, a kind of evolutionary fast track—ontogony recapitulating phylogeny through the dancing body. Cunningham’s current works are not, after all, dances in a vacuum. There are a culmination, even when ripeness is expressed as spareness. The more his utterly individual and uniformly fantastic dancers have performed his earlier works, the more prepared they are to fully inhabit his latest. In an Event, they cover half a century in half an hour. There may also be something transformative in dancing movement the choreographer made up on his own body. Are they, thus, in some bred-in-the-muscle way more like him, and better instruments for it? The movement is virtuosic, why not see it on a Stradivarius?
For that Merce Cunningham that used to be. An extraordinary dancer, intrinsically rhythmic, dramatic, and, of course, clear. And what a jump, back when! (You can see it on the film of Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring, in which he originated the role of the Preacher. “Merce,” she said, “was made for the air.”) Somehow, as his body has betrayed him—he was visibly frail at curtain call, leaning on the arm of one or another of his beautiful dancers—he has gathered up these powers into his mind, in a way remindful of Beethoven, who, grown deaf, somehow could hear music by composing it, effecting a dynamic synesthesia: Thought become sound. Cunningham is operating today with similar authority. He works seated at a computer, or at his desk, with pencil and paper.
Time has caught up with him, but it is still his element. His thoughts are movement.
originally published in Dance View, Winter 2005