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By Sandra Neels
Inside the reconstruction of Merce Cunningham's Place
Although the Merce Cunningham Dance Company gave its last performance one year ago, Cunningham’s works continue to be staged around the world. What is it like to piece together a 46-year-old dance using little more than grainy film footage and the power of memory? To re-create not only the steps but also the atmosphere? Sandra Neels, who danced in the company from 1963 to 1973 and is an associate professor of dance at Winthrop University in South Carolina, recalls her most recent reconstruction project, supported by the Merce Cunningham Trust’s new Fellowship Program.
Sandra Neels and Albert Reid in Cunningham’s Place (1966)
On a bright Monday afternoon in May, I arrive at one of New York City Center’s studios to find 16 smiling and eager dancers, awaiting their first encounter with Merce Cunningham’s 1966 Place. Robert Swinston, the director of choreography for the Cunningham Trust, has auditioned them from his technique classes for a series of summer workshops. They are graduates and/or advanced dancers from a variety of strong dance programs: North Carolina School of the Arts, New World School of the Arts, NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Marymount Manhattan, Rutgers, Barnard, Juilliard, and SUNY Purchase. Through their BFA dance programs, as well as recent daily technique classes with Robert, they have been prepared for the complexities of the Cunningham aesthetic, as well as the rigorous technique.
They are about to encounter one of Merce’s darkest works, and I set the stage by letting them know that the next three weeks will be a collaborative effort. I want them to feel that the work, Robert, and I are accessible from the very beginning. Although I have reconstructed and restaged many works on the Cunningham company and the RUGS (Repertory Understudy Group), this will be the first time I’ve worked with student dancers on Merce’s repertoire since the early 1970s. The Cunningham technique demands the coordination of complex torso movements that are the “treble,” together with the “bass” of strong, ballet-trained legs. Added to this are the quick changes of direction and rhythm, which are difficult even for professional dancers. After I watch these students in Robert’s advanced class, though, I see that they will more than meet the challenge.
Robert and I begin the rehearsals with the dancers viewing the fuzzy 1968 video. The lighting is so dim that they squint in an effort to see any movement whatsoever. Afterward, one of them asks, “How in the world were you able to reconstruct this piece?” I explain that this project has taken a year of careful studying of the only video, looking at contact sheets from the ’60s, and meditating heavily on the piece as a whole. During the latter, I would mentally “return” to the rehearsals with Merce, focusing on the other dancers’ parts, as I could easily remember my own. I encourage the students to let me know of any movement I may have missed from the video, and they soon point out some of the evasive pieces.
From the beginning, the dancers know that they will not be depending upon music for cues, rhythm, or tempo. Robert and I rehearse, as Merce always did, with a stopwatch and verbal counting until the tempo of each section is organically set. The dancers soon develop a shared pulse, so that when performing the highly rhythmic “12’s” and “6’s,” they are completely in sync.
I am careful to connect them further to Merce’s work by referring to what they have already learned in their dance history classes, such as: Merce Cunningham’s choreography is about “movement for movement’s sake.” They soon discover that this is not true of Place. It is definitely not just about technique, time, space, and design. It is like taking a trip through Merce’s complex psyche. Although the piece contains upbeat sections, which had caused the original cast to think of it as one of Merce’s light and fun works, it quickly takes a turn when one dancer (Merce, in the original version), after several attempts to make contact with the others, is finally left alone. He walks stoically toward an upstage corner of the space, where he crawls into a plastic bag, thrashes across the stage to center, then rolls backward offstage.
When I teach this section to the two men who are sharing Merce’s role, they joke a bit with the plastic bag. It happens to be one of the two days we are rehearsing in the old Westbeth studio, amidst construction and painting. I can feel Merce’s presence still in the studio, and I am offended at the dancers’ reaction. I see the laughter as a sign of disrespect, when it is probably because the two men simply do not have the experience to comprehend this part of the piece.
As the days progress, the dancers become more involved. For them, it is like being a part of dance history, rather than just reading about or viewing this work. The air in the studio suddenly changes to a deeper seriousness, as the dancers become more aware of what they are dealing with. In the meantime, Beverly Emmons, the original costume and set designer for the work, arrives with a rebuilt part of the set; and Gordon Mumma, the original composer, has sent a tape of the music. We work with the set immediately, but save the music for the last two days. Everything is beginning to take shape. The dancers become another Cunningham company! Their precision within the Cunningham style, their organic understanding of the piece, and the focused community they’ve created have all contributed to the professionalism of the final showing.
Although Place does not have a “story,” it does seem to follow the journey of a contemporary “Everyman.” The isolation and ultimate self-destruction that sometimes plague the best of us are vividly apparent in Merce’s role. Indeed, Merce’s own conflict with the inability to humanly connect with others is a pervading theme. Even the other dancers experience the sudden detachments choreographed into their duets. By the end of the workshop, there is no need to explain to them how they should perform Place, because they have already received the piece viscerally. Only technical corrections such as partnering, spacing, and working with the props are necessary.
During the second and final week, both casts are filmed the day before the two public showings at City Center’s fifth-floor studio. The dancers appear transformed; suddenly the separate pasts become one. Some of the audience members who have seen the original Place are tearful. I am grateful. I know that Merce has been with us all the way.