The Long Goodbye

November 27, 2011

Merce at Brooklyn Academy of Music in
How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run (1965). John Cage is at bottom right. Photo by James Klosty, Courtesy BAM.

A beacon of light on the dance landscape since 1953, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company will dim that light this month. When Merce died two years ago (See
“Transitions,” Oct. 2009

), his company embarked, according to plan, on a two-year “Legacy Tour.” It’s with both sadness and awe that we present this photo collage of the company that transformed modern dance into an utterly contemporary art. Cunningham was known for his revolutionary ideas, for his chance process, and for his collaborations with musicians, visual artists, and filmmakers. But the dancing always came first. So we’ve asked MCDC members of different eras (their dates with the company are given after their names) to comment on the photos, to tell us what they were doing or thinking at that moment. As for the future of his technique and repertoire, turn to “Teach–Learn Connection,” where Siobhan Burke reveals plans for classes and workshops to continue. And keep an eye on, where MCDC dancer Rashaun Mitchell is posting guest blogs from the Legacy Tour.

Left: Cunningham in
Changeling (1956). Photo by Richard Rutledge, Courtesy MCDC; Right: Antic Meet (1958), with costumes by Robert Rauschenberg. Carolyn Brown is at left. Photo courtesy MCDC.

“His own dancing is suffused with mystery, poetry, and madness—expressive of root emotions, generous yet often frightening in their nakedness.” —Carolyn Brown, 1953–1973, in Merce Cunningham, ed. James Klosty (Saturday Review Press, 1975)

Walkaround Time (1968), with Gus Solomons jr, second from right. Photo by James Klosty, DM Archives.

“It’s a moment of repose amongst Jasper Johns’ pillows, which have elements from Duchamp’s painting The Large Glass applied to them. Valda Setterfield is clearly visible, and Merce is next to me. Merce was a force to be next to onstage. His conviction in every move inspired me. Whether he did the step technically perfect (i.e., as we’d learned it in class or rehearsal) didn’t matter, he did it as if there were no other possibility at that moment. That was what influenced how I did my steps. I always tried to do them exactly as taught/intended, but in the moment, I did them as fully as I could, given whatever the circumstances were. I think that’s what we all did and what mostly gave Merce’s dancers their reputation for being technically flawless—which, lord knows, we weren’t entirely!” —Gus Solomons jr, 1964–1968

Scramble (1967), with Merce upstage and Sandra Neels in V-neck leotard. Photo by James Klosty, DM Archives.

“Merce choreographed my first solo in this piece, and apparently (I heard), he never permitted anyone else to dance it after I left. I remember that solo today…Anyway, that particular section in the photo is a shot of the group exit to stage right, and we are all attached in some way. I remember it being very awkward for me because I could only see the floor and was completely dependent on other dancers for my direction. I totally loved this piece.”

—Sandra Neels, 1963–1974

Rainforest (1968), with decor by Andy Warhol. Alan Good at left with Robert Swinston and Helen Barrow. Photo by Michael O’Neill, DM Archives.

“Three times I had to pin my arms to my sides and fall motionless like a tree, then cushion the fall at the last second to scramble back up. From the corner of my eye I saw Helen pull and thrust in Robert’s grip. All three of us were stapled to our spots, and strained against them. My fall had this great contrast between blandness and explosion—inching off center, looking out at the audience, with nothing happening, like a train pulling out of a station, before the wind flew past my face and I needed to claw for the approaching floor. Merce set up repetitions like these that allowed steps to sink in. Somehow he kept the movements’ meanings, even their contradictions, wide open so that while we inevitably created a ritual, everyone had room for opinion inside them—audience and dancers alike.”

—Alan Good, 1978–1994

Travelogue (1977). Photo by Jack Vartoogian, DM Archives.

“The dancers are, from the left, Merce, Julie Roess-Smith, me, Robert Kovich, Karole Armitage, and Meg Harper. Here’s what I was thinking:

1. Wow, just a little more of this and then I get to sit on the chair. 2. Robert’s cool solo with the tin cans tied to his limbs is coming up—can’t wait to see him try to move without making a sound, and then jump furiously and set them all a-clatter! 3. This piece is fun to do, and I’m so glad I don’t have to stand in relevé on one leg AT ALL! Note: We performed Travelogue at City Center, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono were in the audience. They came backstage afterwards to say hello, and John said he liked my dancing—a great memory!!” —Ellen Cornfield, 1974–1982

Holley Farmer and Brandon Collwes in
Second Hand (1970). Photo by Tony Dougherty, Courtesy BAM.

Second Hand is the last full-length reconstruction I learned. I danced the Carolyn Brown role, in which she watches Socrates (Merce) prepare for his death. This dance put me in a certain frame of mind. When I performed it, I began the process of saying good-bye to Merce.” —Holley Farmer, 1997–2009

From left: Marcie Munnerlyn, Silas Riener, Emma Desjardins, and Brandon Collwes. Photo by Stephanie Berger, Courtesy MCDC.

“That photograph is from our performance at the Park Avenue Armory two years ago. It was the memorial for Merce, so it was definitely a bittersweet moment. We were without Merce and missing him but at the same time doing his work, which to me always brings him to life a little bit. We’ll be doing our final performances at the Armory as well, so it will all come full circle. It’s an amazing space—such a large, open space—and we’re going to fill it with three stages of dance.” —Emma Desjardins, 2006–present

Merce in
Antic Meet. Photo by Richard Rutledge, Courtesy BAM.

“Dance is most deeply concerned with each single instant as it comes along, and its life and vigor and attraction lie in just that singleness. It is as accurate and impermanent as breathing.” —Merce Cunningham, “The Impermanent Art” (1952), in Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years

Last Chance

Dates for the last month of MCDC’s Legacy Tour

• Dec. 2–3: Kennedy Center, Washington, DC

• Dec. 7–10: Brooklyn Academy of Music

• Dec. 15–23: Théâtre de la Ville, Paris

• Dec. 29–31: Park Avenue Armory, NYC