The Long Goodbye: Merce Cunningham Has His Last Posthumous Turn at BAM

Silas Riener’s explosive, gasp-inducing solo was the high point of the season

The final work at BAM, and the last intact piece we will have seen from the Cunningham Company, was Split Sides, from 2003, in which the decision as to which half of the piece, with which piece of music (Radiohead, Sigur Rós), which décor (Robert Heishman, Catherine Yass), which set of costumes (black-and-white, color; James Hall), and which lighting design (James F. Ingalls) will be used is made by rolling a die. This is a highly energized work, full of invention, and yet, as happens so often in Cunningham, punctuated by deep stillnesses. Its high point—the high point of the entire season—was a solo by a young dancer named Silas Riener, a solo so explosive, so risky, so convoluted, so thrilling that the entire theater burst into applause and gasps. Mr. Riener seems to move in many different directions at once, getting into and holding impossible balances while twisting his torso into impossible convolutions—yet everything composed and non-showoffy. No one can dance this way. How did Merce Cunningham know that someone could?

The company as a whole works superbly together, and it’s the nature of Cunningham’s procedure that everyone has much to do. The dancers call attention to the work rather than to themselves (the Riener solo is an exception). Robert Swinston, the senior dancer and director of choreography, has the impossible task of assuming Cunningham’s roles, and handles himself tactfully and with honor. (Being a generation or more older than the rest of the company, he looks less comfortable mixed in with the crowd.) But after this month it will all be history anyway. There are ample records of the dances and the dancers; of the way things were and have been for 60 years. But the experience itself is behind us.