Merce's Other Legacy
Yesterday I saw the very last night of Merce on Earth. I mean the last Legacy Tour date at the Park Avenue Armory. But I’m not going to talk about the event because plenty of dance writers have and will. Sure it was nice to see the dancers and take a guess at what piece they were excerpting. And it was awesome to see/hear how the live horn music (by Takehisa Kosugi or John King or both) colored the dancing so that you felt impending disaster or a stream of serenity. It was neat to see how the movement choices are just a hair’s breadth away from being “arbitrary” but instead seem natural. It was heart-warming to see the complete trust the dancers have in each other, for instance diving backward into another dancer’s arms without looking. I could tell you about some of the beautiful or bracing moments in the choreography. Or the stadium-like roaring when it was all over, and the many times we called them back for a bow.
But I won’t. Instead I’m going to talk about who was in the audience because that is the other legacy. Cunningham’s effect goes beyond the Legacy Tour and beyond the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. There’s a piece of Merce in all of us.
Here are some of the choreographers I saw in the audience: Donald Byrd, Jane Comfort, Lar Lubovitch, Annie-B Parson, Helen Pickett, Trisha Brown, Sarah Michelson, Vicky Shick, Wendy Rogers, and Meredith Monk. And of course, choreographers who have danced in his company: Steve Paxton, Neil Greenberg, Douglas Dunn, Kimberly Bartosik, Gus Solomons, and Foofwa d’Immobilité. All felt the loss of the Cunningham company; all felt influenced by Merce in some way.
All these choreographers are very different from each other. When I think of Donald Byrd’s raucous, in-your-face Harlem Nutcracker, or Jane Comfort’s delving into the unconscious in Underground River, or Helen Pickett’s challenge to super technical ballet dancers to be mercurial, or Gus Solomons' sly humor in A Thin Frost, or Trisha Brown’s velvet-soft dancers, none are imitating the Cunningham style. And yet they are all post-Cunningham dance makers.
Post-Cunningham means post-modern. Merce didn’t just influence these and many other artists; he changed the way we think about performance. One of the ideas that he (along with John Cage) introduced is about the multiplicity of ideas. As I wrote in my obit of Merce, the dance could be one thing, the music entirely another, and each viewer gathers his own “meaning” from the combination. Cunningham and Cage had the knowledge, the faith, that we would each make our own sense out of the shards we witness. It’s one of the things they knew about the human mind, and it is something about contemporary life that we now know. Whether we are multi-tasking or surfing the web, we have embraced the habit of encountering several, sometimes conflicting ideas at the same time.
Recently Annie-B Parson, who says she feels very indebted to Cunningham, brought Supernatural Wife to BAM. A collaboration with director Paul Lazar, it looks nothing like a Cunningham piece. I’s based on an ancient Greek play but also dips into more recent sources like a 1940s Hollywood movie and rock music. It sounds like a hodgepodge, but, as Siobhan Burke says in our November “Dance Matters,” the end product is “inexplicably harmonious.”
In Supernatural Wife, Hercules enters crashing around on a drum set. He’s a god but he’s also a rebellious teenager. Later, he would launch into a lunge and say something like “Who is the dead woman in your house?” with zero expression. This disembodied voice treads the border between funny and preposterous. But from this contradiction in his behavior, you perceive Hercules’ power and doubt. And when the two children who are about to lose their mother enter, they are not there in the flesh but on video monitors. We don’t need to see the actual children; we’ve gotten used to being moved without a full plate of evidence.
Here’s an example of another choreographer whose work looks nothing like Cunningham’s. Liz Lerman, who’s known for community involvement and researching big questions, found a way to make dances because of seeing Merce. She was not at the Armory last night (she lives in Maryland) but here’s an entry in her recent book, Hiking the Horizontal.
“1967: Merce Cunningham and John Cage at Brandeis University performing How to Pass Kick Run and Fall. Cage is sitting at the side of the stage telling stories. The dancers are moving in a fast, clipped abstract form that I had recently been studying at Bennington College but as yet had not integrated into my midwestern lyrical style characterized by a certain kind of flowy, long legato line of the body. Suddenly, or rather during the course of the dance, my whole being woke up. I became alert, almost frantic with energy, and very determined to try dancing again. At the time I didn’t have a clue why. Only later, in retrospect, was I able to see that the talking gave me a way into the movement vocabulary, and the stories brought me to a total engagement with the theatrical event.”
It’s about waking up the senses, waking up the possibilities. It’s not that Liz adopted Merce’s style, but that the simultaneity of Cunningham’s movement vocabulary with John Cage’s story telling opened a door for her.
Cunningham and Cage opened up so many doors. Not just for artists but for audiences too. As we watch performances, we are open to the multiplicity of modes, moods, and styles. That’s why something like Supernatural Wife works so well. And we each perceive the jumble in our own way.
And yet, with the Cunningham company, it’s never a jumble. And that’s where post-Cunningham artists have to be careful. Whatever Merce’s methods—whether throwing the dice or relying on computer software— he had a touch. A friend of mine, the late Harry Whitaker Sheppard, said that he would get chills during a certain perfect decision of Cunningham's, whether it was exactly when a dancer would enter from upstage right or how three dancers would interact with each other. The ability to give chills, when it comes down to it, cannot be explained by any idea or method.
The coming weeks see not one, but two companies that can best be described as French cultural mash-ups landing at New York City's Joyce Theater.
It was a Christmas Eve that The Lion King dancer India Bolds will never forget.
Exhausted from a long week of performances, Bolds was clueless when she saw her cast mates randomly dancing in Broadway's Minskoff Theater lobby, and even more confused when they morphed into a choreographed flash mob. But when her boyfriend of four years, Dale Browne, popped up in the mob wearing a beautiful blue suit, she realized what was coming.
Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.
"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.
After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.
Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org
In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."
She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."
Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.
Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.
Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
Back in the 80s, Molissa Fenley introduced a luscious, almost Eastern-feeling torque in the body that made her work compelling to watch. Her sculptural shapes and fierce momentum showed a different kind of female strength than we had seen. Now, as part of The Kitchen's series on composer Julius Eastman, Fenley has remounted her 1986 Geologic Moments, the second half of which she had developed with Eastman. The result, which premiered at Brooklyn Academy of Music, is a richly textured piece in both music and dance. (The first half has music by Philip Glass.)
When Paul Taylor created Beloved Renegade on Laura Halzack in 2008, he gave unequivocal instructions. She was the figure, sometimes referred to as the angel of death, who circles dancer Michael Trusnovec in a compassionate, yet emphatic way.
"He choreographed every single step for me," she says. "He showed it to me—do this développé, reach here, turn here, a very specific idea," she says. His guidance was that she be cool and sweet. Then, she says, "he just let me become her. That's where I really earned Paul's trust."
From the minute my journey as a dancer began at age 4, there were no other options of what I might do with my life.
Sure, I tried other "after-school activities." I tried desperately to master The Phantom of the Opera with my squeaky violin rental—a headache for my parents who paid for private Suzuki method lessons at our house. Constantly attempting famous show tunes on my violin, the effort was completely futile. I actually remember thinking, 'Surely this sheet music is wrong, this sounds nothing like the Phantom of the Opera.'
I even tried my hand at gymnastics. But when my mom's brilliant bribery of $100 for my first mastery of a kip or a back handspring didn't produce any results, we quickly threw in the towel.
When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."
But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.
From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.
New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.
A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.
Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.
In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.
When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series