Merce Cunningham Dance Company

April 16, 2009

Merce Cunningham Dance

Brooklyn Academy

of Music, NYC
April 16–19, 2009

Reviewed by Eva Yaa


On Cunningham’s 90th birthday, his
Nearly Ninety premiered at BAM. Photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy BAM.


At 90, Merce Cunningham remains an artist beloved by many, still delighting in the intellectual pleasures of work. His example has inspired generations of our most notable contemporary dance makers and performers. And so, his spring season at BAM should have been more than a birthday celebration. It could have offered the vision of an elder still scouting new terrain and tempting us with a possible future.

Unfortunately, the ninety-or-so minutes of Nearly Ninety are not essential, transcendent Cunningham, nor is this piece particularly revelatory. Collaborating with rock musicians (John Paul Jones, Sonic Youth) who mostly produce pointless, ear-lacerating noises is so 20th Century. Dressing dancers in Romeo Gigli’s unitards that only underscore the movement’s arid, artificial, and confining atmosphere is old-school, and it does these esteemed performers a disservice. It looks not just unflattering but repressive, even punishing.

Nearly Ninety
has its isolated rewards, most often provided by dancers whose inherent beauty can be pinched back only so much. The iconic Holley Farmer and Andrea Weber seem to be in touch with irrepressible inner selves that make their outward dancing selves gleam. Rashaun Mitchell interprets Cunningham’s dictates with a subtle, palpable softness that, while sacrificing nothing of precise form, makes room for the human viewer in a human world of his own imagining. Nearly Ninety needs these points of focus because, without them, it would be a robotic, awkward exercise in physical manipulation and juxtaposition.

The unusual décor by Italian architect Benedetta Tagliabue has won little critical respect, but why single her out for scorn? Her glittery, off-centered structure—which conceals and reveals the musicians—might look like an ungainly, silly mess. But it’s also the skeletal base of an eye-popping, sensual light show provided by Brian MacDevitt and video designer Franc Aleu. Tagliabue’s sci-fi mothership and the images slid and splashed across it are just plain fun to watch. Too bad that Nearly Ninety’s collaborators could find only a few tentative ways to integrate the human body into this exhilarating display—as when a high platform suddenly folds out from the structure, and willowy Julie Cunningham climbs up to dance atop it like a cross between a music-box figurine and ET.

Nearly Ninety
gives us too much of what we no longer need—the astringent, inexpressive movement, the anarchic music. Risking heresy, I’ll suggest that acolytes who revere aging dance masters can perhaps be forgiven for clinging to the storied past. But forgive the artists themselves? Never.