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 Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing “Biped” (1999). (Stephanie Berger/BAM)

This past week marked a unique circumstance in the history of dance in America—the first time I can think of when a major figure took a last (posthumous) bow and shut up shop. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company gave four performances at BAM, featuring six of Cunningham’s major works, and apart from several Events—pieces being performed simultaneously on three stages (the audience wanders from one to another for 45 minutes) later in the month at the Park Avenue Armory—it has only a two-week season in Paris remaining before it permanently disbands.

Mind you, this all comes at the end of a two-year farewell world tour in accordance with Cunningham’s plan, but it’s still a defining goodbye. The school will continue, and the works will be available to other companies to be staged by ex-Cunningham dancers, but a season of his work presented by a formal Cunningham company, like the one we’ve just experienced, is a thing of the past.

Ballet choreographers have it easier. The language of ballet is universal and can be handily transplanted—works by Balanchine, Ashton, Robbins, MacMillan are on view everywhere. Earlier masters have slowly gone out of fashion, but there are still Fokine and Lifar and Nijinska spottings—the Paris Opéra Ballet, for instance, continues to pretend that Lifar matters—and of course the 19th-century classics endure. But each modern master creates his or her own language, so that when he or she is gone, the work is dangerously vulnerable. Certain modern masters like Doris Humphrey have essentially vanished. The Martha Graham company keeps coming back to greater or lesser effect, but the repertory exists and the performance tradition exists—sort of. The José Limon company is still valid, with some of his repertory intact. Paul Taylor works are performed everywhere, though rarely as wonderfully as his own company performs them; they’re not an endangered species, and—thank God—Mr. Taylor is still here to protect them and add to them, and to arrange a sensible future for them. But what will happen to the Cunningham rep? And does it matter?

There are many people for whom it matters more than anything else, who see him as the overwhelming dance genius of our time. (It’s the way I see Balanchine.) I’ve always been ambivalent about him. The absolute mastery is always evident—no one understands movement better than he does, and if he’s ever had a foolish or vulgar moment, I’ve missed it; there’s clearly meaning behind everything he’s ever done. And of course he was a great dancer—one of America’s greatest. For me, though, the disconnect between dance and music as well as between dance and narrative too often leaves me floundering, unsure of what I’m seeing when I see movement bare. I feel fortunate that in these final few days at BAM I was able to respond so positively to so much—for me, a last moment reprieve, even though for the company it was only a stay of execution.

There were three programs. My heart sank with the first, an hour-long work from 1983 called Roaratorio with a challenging score by John Cage that announces itself as “An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake.” It’s a tumult of sounds, from the roar of trains and the cries of babies to animal noises and weather effects, plus Cage himself reading aloud the 2,462 place names to be found in Joyce’s novel, most of them unintelligible as they come pounding at the audience from the surround-sound system. I don’t  appreciate Irish jiggy or folky inflected dance, I don’t get Finnegans Wake, and I dislike the circus, so there were three strikes against me from the start.

Second Hand put me on the right path. It was originally meant to be danced to Satie’s Socrate, but a Cage score was substituted when the Satie estate denied Cunningham permission. The dance, nevertheless, reflects the life—and particularly the death—of Socrates. As he prepares to die, Socrates (originally danced by Cunningham himself, now by Robert Swinston) stands away from his disciples as he accepts, even welcomes, his fate. I also feel reverberations of The Tempest, with Cunningham as Prospero dismissing all those human spirits whom he has conjured up. I suspect that he was never really interested in people except as the equipment he needed to create movement. In that sense, he would not have been interested in dancers per se, unlike a Balanchine or Ashton (or Taylor or Tharp or Morris), for whom identifying, exploring and revealing individual dancers was of consummate interest. (Graham was first and foremost concerned with creating works which she herself could dance.)

Earlier in Cunningham’s career he associated himself with major contemporary artists—Rauschenberg, Johns, Warhol—to provide the visual counterpart to his dances. By the end of the last century he had engaged with computer art, and was committed to a kind of randomness—he was now at a further remove from collaboration with other artists, especially when in 1992 Cage, his lifelong partner, died. Yet for me, his BIPED, created in 1999, is his most beautiful and moving work. (He was approaching 80 when he made it.) Again and again the 13 dancers invade the stage and recede from it, alone or in what appear to be inevitable groupings. Their glistening costumes, the remarkable shifting lighting and the inspired projections of moving digital images that flash upon a scrim at the front of the stage give the entire work a cohesion that I don’t find in much of Cunningham. Most importantly, the pulsing score by Gavin Bryars supports and reinforces the rush of the dance. The ending is a dying fall—the fulfillment of a long and rich philosopher’s life.

The third of the BAM programs began with two well-known works, Pond Way (Brian Eno; Roy Lichtenstein) and RainForest (David Tudor and Warhol­—his famous silver helium balloons that occasionally float out over the audience). The first is calm, reflective, at times as if underwater—floating, diving and surfacing. The second is certainly grounded—as its title suggests, almost jungly in its feel; there are even ape-inflected moments. But whatever the basic metaphor in a Cunningham piece, the subject is always the same: basic dance movement. The long balance, the leg thrust outward, the tilt, the leap forward with one arm outstretched—and the way these dance phrases accumulate into something meaningful without benefit of music or narrative but instead by the way one dancer or group of dancers echoes or contrasts with another.

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