Did Merce Plan It Like This?

October 29, 2009

Crowds of people swarmed around three centers of activity at the humongous Park Avenue Armory Wednesday night for “Events in honor of Merce—Memorial.” At first you couldn’t tell when and if anyone was performing. But as you walked further in, you saw, through the forest of people, first one group of brightly colored leotards and then another on a different platform, performing excerpts of Merce’s work with the same combination of austerity and curiosity that Cunningham dancers have projected through the ages.

There was no comfortable place to sit, so we had to keep moving, and no place where you could be sure to see everything. Musicians were camping out on a high balcony, making lovely sounds—not the ultra-loud bombardment usually favored by his musicians. This was different—more sensual, more contemplative. They were in a quieter mood.

Many Cunningham alumnae came back to dance: Gus Solomons, Dennis O’Connor, Catherine Kerr, Kimberly Bartosik, Ellen Cornfield, and others. I saw Valda Setterfield, with her magnetic presence, boldly walk out on one of the platforms and start the Cunningham back exercises (with an added bit of dynamics that made them almost like Graham contractions). I saw Holley Farmer, wearing a shimmery evening gown (newly influenced by her work with Twyla, methinks), in an excerpt of Fluid Canvas, slowing arching back—so divine.

At a certain point the current company performed parts of Second Hand (1970), all coming together to lift one person. Four young dancers from the young Repertory Understudy Group danced vigorously. But clusters of audience were shifting from place to place, the strips of footlights were in our eyes, and there were always other dancers somewhere else that you were not seeing.

I wonder if Merce planned it this way. I mean, that we could never see the whole performance. We had to learn, once again, that the complete thing out of our grasp. Or maybe that there is no such thing as a complete thing.

One or two friends commented that it was a sad occasion. But most of us felt fortunate to have had Merce among us. (Read my full obit here.) For those of us who took class at the Cunningham studio in the 1970s, we saw people from our deep past and reconnected.

Merce and his sensibility had been an anchor in our lives. Judith Ren-Lay reminded me about the choreographic workshop we took with Merce in the 1970s. In those classes, Merce often said that you should pay attention not just to your goal, but to everything along the way. And in the memorial booklet I found a similar quote: “How you get into something is equally important as when you get there.” (This quote was taken from the transcripts of Mondays with Merce™ Nancy Dalva and the Cunningham Dance Foundation.)

So, mixed in with the performing were bits of our own lives. And being in the “audience” was being part of the event, or “event.” We weren’t just witnessing art, we were part of the experience. Art and life, as Merce would have it, glommed onto each other.

And to make it really cosmic, Meredith Monk sang for the last five minutes of the evening. Her voice, seeming like it was coming from the earth, then from the diaphragm, then from the heavens, hurtled across the cavernous space so that you heard it resonate from everywhere. It was like she was saying Merce is still here, he’s still all around us.




Photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy Merce Cunningham Dance Company