Merce Cunningham: the Legacy Tour

13 Feb

Tonight was the inaugural performance of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s Legacy Tour, which will travel the world (Rome is next, according to the salesman from whom I bought a couple of postcards) performing works from Merce Cunningham’s repertory of modern dances.  I was so honored to be in the audience tonight; to see MCDC perform live for the very first time, to be a tiny part of this historic tour and most of all, honored to have seen Cunningham choreography.  It was a very special occasion (even though I didn’t have time to eat dinner and was starving throughout the show…which I didn’t really notice until after it was over), highlighted by a preperformance talk with Ohio State University’s very own, Karen Eliot (a former dancer with the company) and David Covey (former lighting director) as well as a question and answer session with a couple of the dancers, David Vaughan, the company’s archivist and…a guy with a mustache (regrettably, I didn’t catch his name or role with the company).  There were even showings of Tacita Dean’s Craneway Event earlier in the day (which unfortunately I missed…I had no idea they were even happening) so it was quite the exhaustive Cunningham crash course.  And I was loving every moment (and not missing watching the 2010 Olympic opening ceremonies!).

During the preperformance talk, Karen gave a speech about her experiences as a dancer for the company and it was evident that there was a lot of love and passion for what she learned during that time.  She told us that there was no right way to be an audience member for a Cunningham dance; she would find moments where she would laugh at the way a certain gesture was done but on the other end of the spectrum every Cunningham dance she sees brings her to tears.  She may not have been dancing on stage that night, but she was radiant; it’s so rare to see someone who is so deeply integrated into something they love.  Plenty of people can tell you “dance is the very fiber of my being,” but when it comes to Karen you really believe it to an extent that never occurred to you before and that alone is a precious gift.

David Covey followed with a few anecdotes of his time with Cunningham, from a whirlwind acceptance of the job to the one and only time Cunningham ever imparted his opinion on the lighting design of a piece.  David stressed that Cunningham always placed complete trust in his collaborators and never asked for anything, which is why his one request for David was so unusual.  He asked David to come to the studio at a particular hour, when the sun reflected off the Hudson River and right into the studio, illuminating primary colors on the walls.  Cunningham needed him to see that and while Cunningham normally sat onstage while directing his company in rehearsals, for this particular piece he actually went into the audience to watch, turned to David and gave him three claps of approval.  I wish I could retell the story as he originally did…it was really beautiful.

So then it was time for the show.  Now I have to preface by saying that I was a little apprehensive as to how I would react to Cunningham works.  I’ve always known that for me, dance is symbiotic with music.  In fact, as a wannabe dancer I rely on music.  In class I always do what the music tells me to do (which sometimes disagrees with the teacher).  When it comes to timing or imagining a character or wearing a certain facial expression it’s as though the voice of the music speaks to me and I just know what to do.  However, although Cunningham of course used music he had a much different approach.  His dancers rehearse in silence and then music is applied for the actual performance.  The thought terrifies me…but now having seen how the elements can come together, Cunningham has silently put a fork in the road ahead of me.  Should I stay true to who I am or seek out what I understand the least?  In the end, there is no right answer but there is always the choice to make.

The two pieces for the program tonight were Crises and Split SidesCrises was originally performed in 1960 and reconstructed within the past decade to enter the repertory again.  Dancers were dressed in solid colored unitards in red, orange and yellow, in sharp contrast to the plain black stage.  I found myself lost in the music, a sort of rambling of piano works with intermittent recognizable rhythms…and it turns out I was okay with it.  I wasn’t lost in it as I would be say, a Chopin Nocturne, but the cascading piano notes sort of relieved any sense of time and the piece was really a lot like daydreaming.  Karen had seen the piece before and told us it reminded her of human relationships, with elastic bands binding dancers to each other and representing the invisible ties two people have between them.  Her ideas were supported by the way pairs of dancers would manipulate each other and what I found the most intriguing was how unbiased the choreography was.  Some relationships were erotic, others playful, but there were no signs of judgment to tell us which actions were favorable or not.  This idea was emphasized by how Cunningham used ballet vocabulary and lines; the lines and steps were there but there was no intention of telling the audience that such lines were beautiful or a high leg extension was virtuosic…merely present.  I was fascinated by how he was able to strip ballet of its prettiness without making it or even the anti-balletic movements adverse.  The choreography had a pure neutrality that simply said it existed.  I felt the whole experience was beautiful, but definitely not in the same sense as going to see a classical ballet (although one woman did a series of stepping onto relevé in a parallel first position and would hold it; it was incredible in ways I have never imagined).

Split Sides was a piece that utilized one of Cunningham’s most famous tactics, randomization.  A few preselected audience members rolled dice to determine various aspects of the dance tonight.  This is absolutely crazy (in an extraordinary way) to me, because I can’t imagine not knowing exactly what would be performed and then finding out right after intermission.  But the dancers said in the Q&A that they were used to rehearsing both A-B and B-A, so it wasn’t a problem at all (one even said it was exhilarating.  I would stress out until my hair turned white).  So there were two different dances, two different pieces of music, two different sets of costumes (one set in black and white sort of violent paint splatters, the other being sunset tones with black accents), two different backdrops (one a washed out cityscape in cool blues and purples, the other an abstract forest with a suspended full moon) and then two sets of lighting cues.  It would be difficult (if not impossible) to really review or describe this piece because chances are it will be different for anyone else who sees it…but for the way it worked tonight, I surprisingly found myself moved by the very end when one dancer left the stage moving in a peculiar way, to music that didn’t really fit the moment…I likened it to when someone dies young.  It was the same feeling of unfulfillment…not just wanting to see more for the sake of seeing more but the tragic understanding that a finite end has come, without reason.  It was truly remarkable to see the way in which the five elements crystallized before us and to me it spoke again of Cunningham’s extrinisicality towards biases and preconceived ideas.  The fact that all parts of the production were equal, with none of them having anything to do with each other until the dance itself is performed (i.e. dancers rehearsing silence, lighting directors being left to their own devises, etc.) made me feel as though I were watching choreographed life itself.  The elements were separate, but equal, incidental and yet on occasion harmonious.  Life itself is a string of unrelated events that have no meaning and yet they do when we decide to attach that meaning.  Cunningham merely provided the series of events while I attached the meaning.  It was very empowering, which is the magic of being an audience member of a Cunningham dance.

I almost feel like it was quite an accomplishment to have experienced, learned and enjoyed so much in one night…I’m still kind of processing things.  But the obvious should be clear; if the Legacy Tour comes to a city near you, I highly recommend that that you attend!  That’s it…just go.

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Split Sides. Photo credit: Tony Dougherty

To download a complete schedule of the Legacy Tour, be sure to check out the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s website.

2 Responses to “Merce Cunningham: the Legacy Tour”


  1. Hera help us… « You Dance Funny, So Does Me - August 10, 2010

    […] and thus nurturing creativity.  I myself went to see the Cunningham Company’s Legacy tour (link for my review), and while I can’t remember exact movements to exact music like I can in ballet, I can vividly […]

  2. 2010 Year in Review: Contest Winners! « You Dance Funny, So Does Me - January 15, 2011

    […] I have a problem with favorites. For instance, when someone asks me what my favorite color is, I never know what to say. Are we talking color to look at, or color to wear? Am I wearing it as a splash of accent color, or as my main clothing item? And what’s the weather like, anyway? And favorite food? What meal is it? What have I been doing that day? Am I above or below my RDA of chocolate? So rather than picking a favorite post, I will just say that at the moment, in my current situation, given today’s weather and the fact that apparently I am a Leo instead of a Virgo (blasphemy! I am routinely harassed for how Virgo I am…), the post I feel like commenting on is February’s post on the Merce Cunningham show. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: