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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.
New York City–based dancers know Gibney. It's a performance venue, a dance company, a rehearsal space, an internship possibility—a Rubik's Cube of resources bundled into two sites at 280 and 890 Broadway. And in March of this year, Gibney (having officially dropped "Dance" from its name) announced a major expansion of its space and programming; it now operates a total of 52,000 square feet, 23 studios and five performance spaces across the two locations.
Six of those studios and one performance space are brand-new at the 280 Broadway location, along with several programs. EMERGE will commission new works by emerging choreographic voices for the resident Gibney Dance Company each year; Making Space+ is an extension of Gibney's Making Space commissioning and presenting program, focused on early-career artists. For the next three years, the Joyce Theater Foundation's artist residency programs will be run out of one of the new Gibney studios, helping to fill the gap left by the closing of the Joyce's DANY Studios in 2016.
What is the right flooring system for us?
So many choices, companies, claims, endorsements, and recommendations to consider. The more you look, the more confusing it gets. Here is what you need to do. Here is what you need to know to get the flooring system suited to your needs.
"I'm sorry, but I just can't possibly give you the amount of money you're asking for."
My heart sinks at my director's final response to my salary proposal. She insists it's not me or my work, there is just no money in the budget. My disappointment grows when handed the calendar for Grand Rapids Ballet's next season with five fewer weeks of work.
"It just...always looks better in my head."
While that might not be something any of us would want to hear from a choreographer, it's a brilliant introduction to "Off Kilter" and the odd, insecure character at its center, Milton Frank. The ballet mockumentary (think "The Office" or "Parks and Recreation," but with pointe shoes) follows Frank (dancer-turned-filmmaker Alejandro Alvarez Cadilla) as he comes back to the studio to try his hand at choreographing for the first time since a plagiarism scandal derailed his fledgling career back in the '90s.
We've been pretty excited about the series for a while, and now the wait is finally over. The first episode of the show, "The Denial," went live earlier today, and it's every bit as awkward, hilarious and relatable as we hoped.
Dancers crossing over into the fitness realm may be increasingly popular, but it was never part of French-born Julie Granger's plan. Though Granger grew up a serious ballet student, taking yoga classes on the side eventually led to a whole new career. Creating her own rules along the way, Granger shares how combining the skills she learned in ballet with certifications in yoga, barre and personal training allowed her to become her own boss (and a rising fitness influencer).
Travis Wall draws inspiration from dancers Tate McCrae, Timmy Blankenship and more.
One often-overlooked relationship that exists in dance is the relationship between choreographer and muse. Recently two-time Emmy Award Winner Travis Wall opened up about his experience working with dancers he considers to be his muses.
"My muses in choreography have evolved over the years," says Wall. "When I'm creating on Shaping Sound, our company members, my friends, are my muses. But at this current stage of my career, I'm definitely inspired by new, fresh talent."
Wall adds, "I'm so inspired by this new generation of dancers. Their teachers have done such incredible jobs, and I've seen these kids grown up. For many of them, I've had a hand in their exposure to choreography."
José Greco popularized Spanish dance in 1950s and '60s America through his work onstage and on screen. Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater's American Spanish Dance & Music Festival is honoring the icon in recognition of what would have been his 100th birthday. As part of the tribute, Greco's three dancing children are reuniting to perform together for the first time since their father's death in 2000. Also on the program is the premiere of contemporary flamenco choreographer Carlos Rodriguez's Mar de Fuego (Sea of Fire). June 15–17, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. ensembleespanol.org.
Dance Theatre of Harlem dancers Christopher McDaniel and Crystal Serrano were working on Nacho Duato's Coming Together in rehearsal when McDaniel's foot hit a slippery spot on the marley. As they attempted a swinging lift, both dancers went tumbling, injuring Serrano as they fell. She ended up being out for a week with a badly bruised knee.
"I immediately felt, This is my fault," says McDaniel. "I broke my friend."
What's on the minds of college students today?
I recently had the honor of adjudicating at the American College Dance Association's National College Dance Festival, along with choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess and former National Endowment for the Arts dance specialist Douglas C. Sonntag. We chose three winners—one for Outstanding Choreography and two for Outstanding Performance—from 30 pieces representing schools throughout the country. It was a great opportunity to see what college dance students are up to—from the issues they care about to the kinds movement they're interested in exploring.
Here were the biggest trends and takeaways:
It's summer festival season! If you're feeling overwhelmed by the dizzying array of offerings, never fear: We've combed through the usual suspects to highlight the shows we most want to catch.
Subscription box services have quickly gained a dedicated following among the fashion and fitness set. And while we'd never say no to a box with new jewelry or workout wear to try, we've been waiting for the subscription model to make its way to the dance world.
Enter barre + bag, a new service that sends a curated set of items to your door each season. Created by Faye Morrow Bell and her daughter Tyler, a student in the pre-professional ballet program at University of North Carolina School of the Arts, this just-launched service offers dance, lifestyle and wellness finds in four themed bags each year: Spring Performance, Summer Study, Back-to-Studio and Nutcracker. Since all the products are specifically made for dancers, everything barre + bag sends you is something you'll actually use, (Plus, it all comes in a bag instead of a box—because what dancer can ever have enough bags?).
barre + bag's Summer Collection
Today, American Ballet Theatre announced a new initiative to foster the development of choreography by company members and freelance dancemakers. Aptly titled ABT Incubator, the program, directed by principal David Hallberg, will give selected choreographers the opportunity to spend two weeks workshopping new dances.
"It has always been my vision to establish a process-oriented hub to explore the directions ballet can forge now and in the future," said Hallberg in a press release from the company. Interested? Here's how you can apply to participate.
Back in January, Chase Johnsey grabbed headlines when he resigned from Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, where his performances had garnered critical acclaim for over a decade, alleging a culture of harassment and discrimination. (An independent investigation launched by the company did not substantiate any legal claims.) Johnsey, who identifies as genderqueer, later told us that he feared his dance career was at an end—where else, as a ballet dancer, would he be allowed to perform traditionally female roles?
But the story didn't end there. After a surprise offer from Tamara Rojo, artistic director of English National Ballet, Johnsey has found a temporary artistic home with the company, joining as a guest at the rank of first artist for its run of The Sleeping Beauty, which continues this week. After weeks of working and rehearsing with the company, last week Johnsey quietly marked a new milestone: He performed with ENB's corps de ballet as one of the ladies in the prince's court.