Merce's Other Legacy

December 31, 2011

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.