At 9:00 PM on New Year’s Eve, just two and a half years after the death of its founding choreographer, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company gave its last-ever performance, and brought to an end both its valedictory Legacy Tour and fifty-eight years of legendary dance-making. The company—still dancing with disciplined power and intensity—marked its passage into history by mounting one of its trademark Events in the Park Avenue Armory’s colossal Wade Thompson Drill Hall, and presented it six times over three evenings. However much one might have ached for a last glimpse of vanishing repertory instead—please, just one more “Roaratorio,” one last “CRWDSPCR”—a newly-minted Event was the right choice. It paid fresh homage to Cunningham’s embrace of contingency and immediacy and to his enthusiasm for collaboration across artistic disciplines. It laid a feast of still-remarkable choreography before us. But most of all it celebrated the company’s fourteen dancers, splendid to a one as soloists and magnificent as an ensemble. They well deserved the honor: Cunningham’s work will live on in some fashion or other, but it’s hard to believe that we will again see it performed by dancers so attuned to its requirements and so palpably, touchingly alive in their commitment to its rigorous beauty.
The choreographic material was arranged to ensure that you’d see a varied array of solos, duets, and larger ensembles—each different in its vocabulary, rhythms, thematic development, and mood—even if you just stood in one place in front of a single platform. And you had only to shift your gaze to another platform to see entirely different material playing out in felicitous counterpoint. The dancer’s redeployment by twos and threes from one stage to another guaranteed that you’d get to see each of them perform a solo or duet of their own at least once.
The space was stunning—kudos to the production team, especially Lighting Designer Christine Shallenberg. There was just light enough in the darkened hall to make out the lattice of industrial girders supporting the Armory’s soaring, barrel-vaulted ceiling. Circles of downward-facing spotlights were suspended like chandeliers over each of the three stages. Shafts of light from spots placed in the hall’s upper reaches sliced through the vast space, illuminating both the dancers and Daniel Arsham’s décor—eight large “clouds” of gray and white spheres suspended from the rafters.
Anna Finke, the company’s Wardrobe Supervisor, dressed the dancers in flattering unitards of soft sky blue or sage green variously patterned across forearm, thigh, and torso with muted photographs of MCDC’s Westbeth home and the skyline views from its rooftop. The famous studio will be shuttered once the Cunningham school closes in March.
The company commissioned four new scores for the occasion from the members of its Music Committee: “Octet” (by MCDC Music Director, Takehisa Kosugi) for electronics; “Open Spaces with Brass” (by David Berman), for cello, brass sextet, and electronics; “Astral Epitaphs” (by John King), for brass sextet, recorded voices, and electronics; and “Song [for 6]” (by Christian Wolff), for double bass, percussion, French horn, trumpet, and piano. The music—sometimes a spectral whisper, sometimes an ominous roar, but always arresting—was performed live by an ensemble of seventeen musicians, including the composers. Some played from a low dais running along the base of the triangular performance space, others from stations in the hall’s upper perimeter.
In keeping with the Cage / Cunningham aesthetic, the music was presented in a different order at each performance. By happy accident, Robert Swinston’s duet with a wooden chair coincided with a jolly rat-a-tat-tat from Joey Baron’s drum kit, giving it a not-inappropriate whiff of music-hall showmanship. In another random effect, the sudden bursts of applause for the dancers just finishing up an episode on one stage punctuated the episodes still in progress the others.
Seen from a theater seat, Cunningham’s choreography looks cool and imperturbable; even its most outlandish gestures can seem empyrean. But up close and freed from the proscenium, it practically knocks you over with its vivid, visceral dimensionality, whatever your angle of view. (No fixed points, indeed!) The effect was amplified by the dancers’ breathtaking speed, control, and elevation. Rashaun Mitchell hit the air with a surgically precise series of split-jumps that somehow resolved into a serene backbend bridge. Daniel Madoff arranged himself into an impossible, off-kilter shape, then spun around in it like a top. Melissa Toogood’s brilliant footwork in a set of whirling turns in place sparkled like champagne.
The sheer wealth of material placed in close juxtaposition underscored the extent to which Cunningham embedded gestures from art, nature, and daily life into the rigorous geometry of his dances. Silas Reiner and Jennifer Goggans each had a solo in which they worked their exacting way through one of Cunningham’s signature essays on stillness and balance. Both evoked figures from a temple frieze with deft economy—he with index fingers pointed skywards, she with a supple ripple of her arms. Dylan Crossman and Toogood’s darting feints into each other’s space made their joint traversal of the stage a child’s game.
The company danced as if there would be no tomorrow, and of course there wouldn’t be—but who can comprehend such a thing? Caught up in the beauty of each passing moment, we could almost forget that a king’s ransom in diamonds was slipping through our fingers. When it was over, we called the dancers back for bow after bow, but before we could bring ourselves to let them go, they’d already slipped from the stage and vanished into history.
copyright © 2012 by Kathleen O’Connell
Top: Jennifer Goggans, Dylan Crossman, and Jamie Scott in “Park Avenue Armory Events” - Photo by Stephanie Berger
Middle: Silas Reiner and members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in “Park Avenue Armory Events” - Photo by Anna Finke
Bottom: Jamie Scott, Brandon Collwes, and Marcie Munnerlyn in “Park Avenue Armory Events” - Photo by Stephanie Berger