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Flash Review, 4-13: Exits and Entrances
Merce is dead; long live Merce

By Daniel Gwirtzman
Copyright 2011 Daniel Gwirtzman

NEW YORK -- A line of ticket-buyers queued in the cold outside the Joyce Theater March 25, hoping for cancellations to see the Merce Cunningham Dance Company's legacy tour in the final weeklong season in Manhattan for the company. Ever. Enthusiasts had tried in vain for weeks to get tickets, and no drastic March chill would deter some of them from a last-effort chance for admittance. Inside the intimate theater nary a seat was vacant and the air was charged with anticipation. This buzz persisted from the moment John King's electronic score triggered the curtain's rise on the 1993 ebullient "Crwdspcr," kept on through 1982's solemn "Quartet" and 1958's comical "Antic Meet," each work punctuated by chatty intermissions, and spilled over to the downstairs lobby afterward where fans and friends greeted the dancers in deserving high-spirited celebration.

New Yorkers have reason to temper the bittersweetness. With three more local engagements to look forward to -- a one-day event at the Lincoln Center Festival this July, four days of shows at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in December, and three terminating end-of-year performances at the Park Avenue Armory, where Merce Cunningham's memorial was held in October 2009 -- we'll have the opportunity to see more of the company than any other city in the world and a prolonged period to say goodbye. The ephemeral nature of dance is poignantly underscored by the knowledge that these dances will never be performed again by a troupe shaped directly by Cunningham and in continuous drive since its founding 58 years ago.

This New Year's Eve, Cunningham's wish to disband the company after a two-year tour following his death will come to pass. Imagine if the Yankees were to announce they would play their final game before a similar end. For New York dance lovers in this camp the magnitude of this historic closing stage is no less, nor is the pride for the West Village-based troupe. It is hard to fathom not being able to root for the home team in subsequent seasons. But times are indeed a-changing.

Cunningham's forward-thinking decision to fold the company pioneers the future of concert dance as he has done with every landmark dance and collaboration. It's insurance neither the company nor its quality will ever suffer. And perhaps it is just staving off the inevitable. What precedence is there for a single-choreographer company to flourish after the founder's death? The track record does not look promising. And is it not within Cunningham's right to allow death to befall the entity he birthed?

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company is a rarefied troupe of dancers that have trained to perform rarefied choreography. This specific complexity however does not diminish its accessibility. Au contraire. The sheer brilliance of the dancers' technique and translations offer the ultimate metaphor the theater can provide: the quest of humans attaining perfection. When a balance is solidly held with correct placement so that absolutes in geometry come to life, as in ballet, subjectivity is secondary. There are facts in the replication of certain forms, elements of physics played out in real time. An effortless pirouette by Daniel Madoff in which time halts as he suspends in all directions while continuing to rotate, or a rush of whiplash-fast diamond-edged chainé turns by Jamie Scott speak for themselves. And what do they say? With Cunningham's dancers held balances are solid and free at the same time. The audience, in addition to the pleasure of the choreography, receives the gift of aspiration, of the potential to succeed in exceeding both the earthbound body we've been given and our accompanying earthbound dreams.

To see the company now is to relish this pitch-perfect technique, richly interpreted, brilliantly executed, and playfully danced by the 15-member troupe.

The program at the Joyce, performed seven times within six days, began with the vowel-less titled "Crwdspcr" (sometimes referred to by Cunningham regulars as Crowd Spacer or Crowds Pacer). This dance marked the beginning of the choreographer's romance with LifeForms, a computer program that enabled him to develop choreography in advance of working with his dancers. Most of us dancers didn't have computers in 1993, the year the work premiered at the American Dance Festival, and AOL had only been around a few years; we were just beginning to use the Internet. Cunningham foresaw the relentless pace and informational overload all these zeroes and ones would unleash over time, and "Crwdspcr," aptly condensed in title, seems more prescient than ever nearly two decades later.

The curtain rises onto a motionless stage with 13 of the company's 15 dancers (director of choreography Robert Swinston sat it out and Julie Cunningham was out this season with an injury) standing still like columns, spread out equitably across the stage and facing innumerable directions. That moment, like 1993 perhaps too, is the last we will see this world at rest. Within moments a brief duet sets everyone in motion and the mercurial dance refuses to adhere to any predictable structure, an observation that applies to many, if not all, dances in the repertory.

Dancers ricochet as molecules, forming temporary alliances with each other, collisions of a sort, before separating and darting off in new, random directions. Of course there is a very solid hand girding these atoms, but the sheer bombardment of activity prevents a viewer from easily recognizing this structure. Fields of unison give way to duets and trios, the stage empties, and then it is suddenly, inexplicably, full again. One truly believes that the dancers continue dancing past our vision, far out past the wings. There is the notion as well that they are not performing this for us, that they are set in motion due to their needs, not the needs of attending to silent observers in comfortable seats.

Jagged elbows and pitched attitudes (the body tipped over the supporting leg) spike the multihued forest of bodies costumed in Mark Lancaster's patchwork unitards, isolating regions of the body to solid blocks of vivid color. Andrea Weber catches our eye and then she's gone. Madoff, after a succession of cabrioles (a beating of the legs while airborne) ending in lunges, joins a quartet's movement, as in cell division, now a quintet in unison.

Emerging from these hectic pools of activity, Emma Desjardins traces the stage slowly from upstage left to stage right in a solo that immediately recalls its original dancer, Banu Ogan. As the score races like shooting stars, this challenging solo requires Desjardins to luxuriate in long balances on one leg with her head arching backward or to the side. She comes downstage toward us, staring ahead, with her pelvis pressed forward, scans her head to the downstage left corner. Is anyone out there? Anything? her body questions.

Dueling duets occur in which facing dancers mirror each other in opposition. Dancers pause momentarily, sometimes carved into the body of another, as Marcie Munnerlyn nestles into Rashaun Mitchell, a motif other pairs emulate. Melissa Toogood folds in laterally on herself in fragmented stages, origami-like, from a high developpé a la seconde through attitude to passé, completing the phrase with her head tilting. It is as if the folding leg caused that reaction, a jewel of a moment, managing to suggest complete organic flow within a highly technical sequence, seen but once amid the constellation of choreographic comets.

Another moment sends Brandon Collwes -- a dancer of arresting sharpness -- repeatedly skyward into the air in a jaw-droppingly high extended front split. Suddenly Weber is on Madoff's shoulder like a chimp on the run. We have been watching her the whole time and still have no idea how she got up there so effortlessly and quickly.

New movements keep sprouting and motifs mutate, the piece representative of Cunningham's work as a whole. This is a dance for 2011's attention span, a dance anyone could find a way into. The visual variety expresses the joy Cunningham must have felt in joining forces with this software. He is a kid in the ultimate candy store and the treats are variedly sumptuous. Near the end, some of the men manipulate Desjardins as a toy castle can be assembled with blocks, new ideas form, coalesce and vanish. The propulsive music stays a constant engine, driving it all, and then, as happens in Cunningham's work, the curtain falls, music ending mid-thought, the dancers scurrying until we can only see them in our overworked mind's eye.

"Antic Meet," which closed the program, inspired terrific laughter in the audience and turned the stereotype of Cunningham's dance as cerebral abstraction on its head. This revival has not been seen in New York since 1969. The work consists of ten vignettes in which antics abound aplenty. The audience audibly gasped as the lights flicked on and revealed a blinding white cyc (one might consider a term for this a whitein, the opposite of a blackout). The costumes and scenic elements were designed by frequent collaborator Robert Rauschenberg.

In a sextet that features Madoff in Cunningham's role, the choreographer makes fun of theatrical conventions stemming back to silent movies and vaudeville, as well as his former employer Martha Graham (at one point cartwheels finish with the leg held aloft, a reference to her "Diversion of Angels"). Madoff presents a bouquet of red flowers and is rejected. A door rolls onto the stage and Jennifer Goggans runs smilingly through it and around the stage in a floor-length Ginny gown.

This is the dance from which the iconic photograph of Cunningham posing with a chair strapped to his back comes. For all the cliché dances with chairs it is refreshing to see the ingenuity of Cunningham's simple device. Goggans sits on the chair on stage level. As the chair is strapped around Madoff's waist, you can imagine the scene. They exit through the door and roll it off from behind. One gag has everyone in sunglasses. It's both obvious and startlingly fresh. Krista Nelson is revealed with a black umbrella. Madoff runs across in a long brown fur coat. One of the funniest moments has Nelson picking imaginary petals and throwing them at Goggans, who reacts in kind with a gesture reserved for the recipient of a punch to the chin. The juxtaposition of theatrical slapstick with accomplished ballet vocabulary adds to the clever zaniness.

This is Madoff's dance as it was Cunningham's. He dances with an absurd four-armed sweater (reconstructed) on his torso, which is missing an opening for his head; a later solo which pays tribute to Gene Kelly has Madoff in white overalls and shoes, a black tie, and one sleeve rolled up to show the black unitard underneath.

It was interesting to note two people leaving the theater not too long into the work (and just before Madoff's turns a la seconde). Was it the goofiness of the antics or the dissonance of John Cage's Concert for Piano and Orchestra played live? Too bad we couldn't send a text to one of those who had waited in vain to get in. In "Antic Meet" textbook history popped to life on the stage.

Sandwiched between the newest and oldest works was the sublimely dark "Quartet," the heart of the program and one of the most powerfully quiet dances to exist in any choreographer's repertory. Swinston, who celebrates over three decades of dancing with the company, inherits the central role Cunningham premiered when he was 63. Swinston is at a similar point in his performing career, shaping the dance similarly as Cunningham. The dance begins with him alone on the stage. Four other dancers enter, making this quartet a quintet, although Swinston remains alone despite attempting to connect with the others. The dancers stand like sentinels, quiet, in parallel fourth position. The moody score by David Tudor is interestingly titled Sextet for Seven. This is a dance about time, longing, missed connections, and reflection... and it takes its time too. Nothing is rushed. An emotional undercurrent escapes from the gravitas of the weighted choreography, like gases released from within the earth's core.

Like "Antic Meet," the cast for "Quartet," with the exception of Swinston, alternated between two sets of dancers. In Friday's performance, John Hinrichs danced with Desjardins, Munnerlyn, and Scott. A shoulder raised, then rolled is a recurring image. Scott's aforementioned chainé turns shock in their laser-like precision and speed. Hinrichs falls to the floor and the women pile on top. He wraps his arms behind his back around them, molding a protective nest.

Scott and Munnerlyn repeat a series of turns with a high leg extended to the side (a suspended off-kilter turn a la high seconde). Later they repeat the turns with the gesture leg bent in attitude. A passage for the quartet, minus Swinston, of sottes into jeté attitudes captures four dancers in perfectly exquisite unison. Hinrichs approaches Desjardin, resting in penchée arabesque (her leg straight up behind her), and his hand suddenly, subtly, finds hers. The opposite of ballet's Rose Adagio, here the dancer employs a partner's hand after, rather than before, finding the balance.

The dance becomes literally darker as it progresses, the color of the cyclorama turning murky like the bottom of the sea or the sky on a stormy day. There's not much light here in this world. Lancaster's costumes place Desjardins in red and she pops against the cyc and the other bluish-green costumes. She slowly develops her leg highly to the side, with her arms extended similarly in a high V, and stays, a moment etched for eternity.

Who are these people? One wants to make a story. Are they facets of Swinston's character? Were these remembrances of Cunningham's? Acknowledgment of the natural order of life, of aging and separating from the community of one's younger peers? Swinston swats at the air in front of him with slight tremors. The role he inherits is based on how the original role had been performed and the resemblance to Cunningham's way of moving startles. At one point he seems destined to join in with the others, but that is our wishful thinking, not the destiny of this character. At the end, Hinrichs shields the women again, stomach to floor, first extending one arm and then the other behind him and over them. Swinston runs off and leaves the stage. The quartet that remains is fractured by his absence, but still they remain.

And like a fine port, the taste remains too. This is a dance one wants to let sit on the palette, to savor and mull over in the memory of the brain's taste buds. "Quartet" is a dance that can withstand repeated viewings, and which one craves to see again, almost immediately. But dance rarely provides us with that luxury. And in the case of this repertory, the pleasures of these spirits are in ever-diminishing supply. As the rich tastes swirled on the tongue, English poet Robert Herrick's verse came to mind: Gather ye rose-buds while ye may/Old Time is still a-flying/And this same flower that smiles today/Tomorrow will be dying.


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