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2, 3-2: Merce, Dancing
Tears for Merce & More at Martha at Mother
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider
The first time
I saw Merce Cunningham perform his "Chair Dance" a couple of years
ago, I cried. (I know, some of you probably think I cry all the
time, but really, it's only death, Merce, Pina, New York City Ballet,
and loves that might have been that drive me to tears, and not all
for the same reason. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and
I'll shoot you the appropriate Flash Reviews and love letters.)
It was partly Merce's powerful presence, partly that he shook when
he walked. I imagine I would also cry in the presence of God, and
Merce is the dance equivalent. The dance was entirely tasteful;
Merce at 78 didn't choreograph for himself as if he were 38. It
was made for a 78-year-old, and one who shakes when he walks at
that. It was an act of generosity more than one of vainglory by
an aging trooper who refuses to leave the stage. When I saw Alicia
Alonso, the great Cuban ballerina, dance a "chair dance" at 74 or
so, I regretted it immediately. Not having seen Alonso in her prime,
this enfeebled, blind ghost was how I would remember her. Last night,
Merce reprised his chair dance for Martha at Mother, the occasional
dance revue at a tiny Meatpacking district bar (Mother), hosted
by faux Martha Graham Richard Move. (Though officially, she leaves
the "Graham" off for legal reasons.) Standing at the rear of the
tiny space, I cried again, tears that linger still.
was not crying. He showed more bonhomie than I would have, being
interviewed by a drag queen channeling the woman for whom Merce
was the second male dancer. "You look like someone I know," he told
Move before recalling various experiences with the real Martha.
Most memorable: A visit to the studio by Helen Keller, who asked
Martha if she could touch a dancer. Martha asked Merce to stand
at the barre. When Keller held him around the waist and lifted him,
Merce recalled, she said he felt "as light as the mind."
As for Merce's
dancing Wednesday night, well.áHis "Chair Dance" at 78 entailed
some movements around the chair and some in it, and a lot of hand
stuff and some footwork. The shaking became part of the choreography.
Last night, it was as if Merce's landscape continues to shrink.
(That's a compliment.) We saw a face ballet at times; the eyes seemed
almost to shut at points, and the face opened into a warm, cherubic
The one sour
point for me was Move's presuming to perform with Merce at the end
of the dance. I thank him and Janet Stapleton for bringing Merce
to their event, but I thought it over-moxie for Move to dance with
him; it presents them as equals, and they're not.
A more successful
collaboration was the premiere of a video created by Charles Atlas
and Cunningham, which gave us a Merce's-eye view of Paris, during
a recent Cunningham tour. The camera appeared mounted on Merce,
who also narrated, bemusedly.
MC'd the performance by Move's company that opened the evening.
Particularly sharp in this ersatz Graham troupe was a dancer who
reminded me of a young Rebecca Jung, the former Pilobolus stalwart.
Looking at my program now....Oh, it was Rebecca Jung. (Funny how
time blurs the memory.) The ersatz bothers me--my concern is that
people who don't know the real McCoy will think that Graham was
just about melodrama, when her psychodrama rings very true. But
judging from the number of Graham insiders on stage--Donlin Foreman
also performed last night--as well as other dance insiders in the
audience (Baryshnikov among them), I'm probably in the minority
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