Last Thursday, on the first night of the last performances of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the Park Avenue Armory, an overzealous staffer sounded more like a ringmaster as he handed out programs.
“We have three stages! Six balconies for you to go on! You can walk around! It’s a very interactive show!”
Just before his death in 2009, the 90-year-old Cunningham decided that after his passing the company would go on a final two-year Legacy Tour and then call it quits. Early last month, The Observer’s dance critic, Robert Gottlieb, wrote about the company’s four performances at BAM of six of Cunningham’s major works. Inside the Armory last week, the last group of dancers to be trained by Cunningham firsthand were warming up on the three stages as the audience shuffled into the 55,000 square foot drill hall for one of the choreographer’s site-specific “Events.” The three-night engagement would be the final set of performances before the company disbanded. The room was lit softly and nine sculptural “clouds” by artist Daniel Arsham—clusters of 20,000 polyethylene balls painted different shades of gray—hung from the ceiling, looking like they were suspended in midair. There was an orchestra on the ground floor, but musicians—a four-piece brass section and two men handling large tables of electronics—were scattered all around the upper balcony of the drill hall, inconspicuous in the darkness. A trumpet sounded and the sound bounced around the space as six performers in gray leotards began to move in unison on the center stage. More performers stood statue-like on the other two stages. The crowd turned their heads dizzily, trying to take everything in.
“It’s like a circus,” one audience member announced before pushing past a huddle of people to a different stage.
The 60-year history of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company has, at this point, moments that feel more like myths. Founded by Cunningham in 1953 when he had a residency at Black Mountain College, the company began modestly, with just four dancers, two musical directors—John Cage and David Tudor—and a stage manager. There wasn’t room for anyone else in the Volkswagen bus they would tour in. (Cage drove.) Robert Rauschenberg usually took on the role as manager and made the sets, typically from whatever objects he could find lying around the city the company happened to be in (he was replaced by Jasper Johns in 1967). Up until his death, Cunningham would perform onstage, even when his legs were stricken with arthritis and he could no longer stand without the assistance of a walker. Always at the foreground of the avant-garde, Cunningham endlessly explored and expanded with his dancers the tensions between immobility and motion, staccato and legato movements and the individual body versus a group of bodies dancing in harmony with one another.
The company was nearly as innovative in the visual arts for its understated, often impromptu sets. These functioned less as environments than as moods, emotional foils for the movements happening inside. (Cunningham also worked with artists from Frank Stella to Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol). The company provided the sound experiments of Cage, who was Cunningham’s longtime lover until his death in 1992, with their most prominent platform. His exploration of dissonance and atonality was as important to the feel of the performances as the movements themselves.
At the Armory, that squeal of a lone trumpet was joined by three trombones. Each instrument let loose one note at a time, so that the sound swirled around the room but never established a melody or stable rhythm. A single note in the drill hall sounds more like ten musicians playing the same full chord and holding it. The sound pierces and echoes, turning a staccato construction into a sustained drone. The minor key whirr of the first section of music—the 45-minute performance was comprised of four movements—was interspersed with brief silences that were as jarring for their absence of noise as that first shriek of the trumpet was an unexpected racket. In those sonic lulls, the dancers’ feet could be heard scraping across the stage, acting as their own percussion instrument.
Each of the three stages showcased a different kind of movement at any given moment. Sometimes a performer would stand in utter stasis—holding a pose until it became an endurance test. On another stage, a dancer leapt and kicked and twirled in one fluid movement while another would move in choppy angles that looked more like involuntary jerks of the body. On the stage closest to the entrance, a male dancer was guiding a woman across the platform, her back bent at a 90 degree angle so that her face was looking up at the ceiling; with every step they took the woman’s leg kicked up so that it was perpendicular to the floor. The duet was both erotic and awkward.
All of this should have felt more random than it did, but each dancer responded to the unsystematic music with powerful intent; the dance became a map to the noise. Dancers cycled onto and off of the stage, moving with such ease and subtlety that it was hard to tell when an entrance or exit had been made until after it happened.
The Merce Cunningham Trust has plans to keep teaching Cunningham Technique starting in 2012, but watching the Armory performance, it was hard not to think about the style’s transience, despite the choreographer’s far-reaching influence. Certain seminal Cunningham pieces have been performed only once (some of those only by Cunningham himself), while others haven’t been staged in decades. A lot of his repertoire died with him. A question hung in the room that was hard to ignore: what will become of Cunningham’s legacy after the Legacy Tour has ended?
The thought more or less faded when Robert Swinston, the company’s director who has performed with them for more than 30 years, took center stage with his much younger companions. The orchestra on the ground floor—which had been mostly silent up to this point—began to swell into a slow and sad melody full of starts and stops. The music began to lift, sliding up higher in key and cutting off abruptly just as it was beginning to crescendo.