Merce Cunningham (1919-2009), one of the greatest American dancers, was known for his innovation and expansion in the frontiers of not only dance, but also contemporary and visual arts. One of the most important choreographers of our time, Merce Cunningham constantly broke the traditional boundaries of dance and created a unique, abstract form of movement through his collaboration with various artists from virtually every creative discipline. Prior to his death, he developed the Legacy Plan to guide his Company and ensure the preservation of his artistic legacy. Part of this plan stated the closure of his Company and thus, the Legacy Tour.
The Legacy Tour, a celebration of Merce Cunningham’s lifetime achievement and genius choreography, began in February of this year. The Company’s final – ever in history – performance will take place on the last day of this year, New Year’s Eve, in New York City. Of the 40 cities scheduled for the Tour, Berkeley was lucky enough to be graced with the opportunity to see Merce Cunningham’s work performed by the company he trained personally – one last time.
The dancers began the show with Pond Way.
I was lucky enough to have experienced Cunningham’s style in my Intermediate Modern class at UC Berkeley, the week prior to watching the Friday, March 4th show. So when the show opened up with Pond Way, a U.S. premier and revival from the 1998 version, I was captured – captured by the precision and free-but-disciplined movement by each of the dancers on stage. In Pond Way, Cunningham incorporates the effects of water with the dancers’ wavelike motions. Wearing white slit-sleeve tops and pants that showed off their torsos and let their self-created waves move through, they performed identical combinations in varying orders, all facing different directions. I noticed every tilt, change of spine, and jeté that reflected what I had learned in class. At some point, I realized it was utterly impossible that they were dancing to the actual music, which had no apparent syncopation for the dancers to follow. Even so, they were meticulous throughout – switching gears from their individual, freestyles and all of a sudden dancing in unison.
The next dance was Antic Meet.
Another U.S. premier and revival from 1958, Antic Meet showed a whole different side to Cunningham’s work. Not seen since 1969, Antic Meet is said to capture the exuberant and collaborative spirit that existed between Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg, an abstract artist and the costume designer for this piece. Wearing all-black, skin-tight, full-body leotards, this piece incorporated colorful props and comedic interactions in contrast to the previous piece. With sometimes only one dancer and one prop such as the four-armed sweater, Antic Meet was absurd yet entertaining for the entire audience. With screeches (most probably sharp notes on a violin) and twangs serving as music, composer John Cage, Cunningham’s partner in radical innovations, provided a most abstract soundtrack to the absurdity. There was never a dull moment from the women in parachute dresses prancing around the man with a chair attached to his waist to the two women attempting to “out-ballet” each other through miming and obvious competitive attitudes while showcasing their ballet abilities.
The final dance performed was Sounddance. All images courtesy of Cal Performances.
For the final number, Sounddance brought the perfect combination of complexity and artistry to really showcase Cunningham’s choreography. In body-tight costumes with tan on top and light blue on the bottom, the dancers emerged from the extravagant backdrop, one by one as if they were running in and out of a tent. This piece highlighted the strength of the dancers – men were constantly lifting the women from place to place throughout the stage. The dancers continuously created negative and positive space and formed strong pictures for the audience to see in terms of flexibility and shapes. I was personally amazed by the never-ending lifts and jumps after taking the Cunningham-style classes – the strength and stamina of these dancers were much applauded. With the music from David Tudor, an avant-garde pianist of his time, I was entranced by the electronic beats – dwindling and increasing like static – intertwined with a drill-like sound and all almost familiar as if various sounds from everyday life were meshed together to make music. The “busy” music mirrored what was going on onstage: several groups doing different things – many times dancers were partnered and the male would guide the female as if it were Merce, the personal trainer. My favorite part was when all the men lined up in front of the backdrop, joined hands and did a huge body wave that pulsated through each of them individually and flowed through them as a whole.
And yes, they received a standing ovation – a long one at that.
The Merce Cunningham Dance Company live is just breathtaking. Though it is definitely not your average ballet company, Merce’s training proves to be a most unique expression of movement with the sole purpose of movement. With all the elements of ballet, you see the traditions torn down and re-created – molded into new, bold forms. My instructor said Merce was a very flip-a-coin kind of guy and liked to mix things up – you do this at this time and you do this other part at this other time; as evident in his choreography where you see the same moves but all at different times and in different orders and directions. He loved seeing the impossible be made possible – instructing his dancers to turn a most absurd way without say, going en pointe or turning out your foot.
I highly encourage you to watch one of the Legacy Tour’s shows before the end of 2011! Be a part of history and witness the genius work of Merce Cunningham. It opened my eyes to this abstract movement that I never knew existed – I always thought ballet performances to be strict and classical. The diversity in modern dance and in Cunningham ballet especially is so wide and innovations are continually emerging in all creative disciplines. Dance is continually evolving through artists’ collaboration and we have Merce Cunningham to thank for paving the way towards this evolution.