Complexity's Master

Merce Cunningham's 60 Years Onstage

New York City awarded Merce Cunningham the Handel Medallion, its highest honor, at the July 21 opening gala of his company's New York State Theater season. It was the least we could do for a man who has altered our eyesight, our hearing, our ways of thinking about dance. For over 40 years, his choreography has shown us that movement and music need intersect only as fugitively as birdsong and leaves stirring, that strict causality need no more dictate the progress of a dance than it appears to do in the world we observe.

Accepting the award, Cunningham said he'd been dancing in New York for 60 years. In celebration of that durability, that nerve, he appeared onstage with Mikhail Baryshnikov in a new duet, Occasion Piece. While Stephen Drury plays Music for Marcel Duchamp, a lean and lovely work for prepared piano by Cunningham's longtime collaborator John Cage, Cunningham lurks behind the transparent boxes that Jasper Johns created for Cunningham's 1974 Walkaround Time, after Duchamp's The Large Glass. Baryshnikov looks rejuvenated by the challenge—beautifully focused, tautness and resilience kept in elegant balance. As for Cunningham, he's not simply a gimpy 80-year-old; he carries onstage—embodies—all he's been and is, all that he's known and knows. Everything he does is art.

Cunningham has always celebrated the tension between the Apollonian and Dionysian in a different manner from everyone else. His dancers—with legs as attenuated, feet as busy, and spines often as lifted as any ballet artist's—give the illusion of making choices, even when complexities beset them. They can tilt their bodies, slash their arms, circle their heads while tearing around a space rendered ominous by electronic storms of music and still look as if this is what they've decided to do. This is how they cope with whirlwinds.

His new Biped seems to celebrate our uprightness, our two-leggedness, our elemental humanness. The nuances of dynamics, the shades of relationships are seldom as pronounced as in other recent works like, say, Ocean, perhaps in deference to the radical design. The "motion capture" technology-art of Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar, and Aaron Copp's lighting, surround the dancers with slim poles of light or fence them with descending virtual bars. Diagonal beams rush together and imitate cartwheeling figures; circles leave ranks as orderly as a row of shirt buttons and coalesce into choreography. Intermittently, the performers are shadowed by Eshkar's elegantly sketchy animated rendering of Cunningham dancers.

Emerging and disappearing from blackness at the rear of the stage, the 14 performers in their glittery silver-blue jumpsuits by Suzanne Gallo seem to be part of a tidal flow. One person may have a moment on the shore, be sucked back, but keep returning. There's little intimacy. Five women may dance in calm accord. Brief partnerships tend to evoke a person facing his or her slightly skewed image in a mirror. Gavin Bryars's commissioned score has a romantic primality, its own tidal force. Deep electronic tones produced in the pit rumble beneath the live playing of cello, double bass, electric guitar, and keyboard, as well as a recorded component. Like latter-day Mahler, the music resolves only to build to new complications. Amid Biped's arduous beauty—and uncanny clarity—the phantom dancers hovering or flying past might be archetypes. Or angels.

As if to challenge any assumptions that Cunningham's works are all cut from the same radical bolt of cloth, the gala began with a one-night-only performance of the 1958 Summerspace by members of the New York City Ballet, and ends with the 1975 Sounddance. Summerspace, subtitled "a lyric dance," has a spare, shimmering score by Morton Feldman (played by members of the New York City Ballet Orchestra, conducted by John Kennedy) and a pointillistic backcloth and matching costumes by Robert Rauschenberg. The whole suggests the life of a field, the isolated comings and goings of creatures intent on their own missions, occasionally delicately intersecting. Coached by Cunningham, Robert Swinston, and original cast member Carolyn Brown, the NYCB dancers (Stacey Calvert, Kipling Houston, Zippora Karz, Jenifer Ringer, Alexander Ritter, and Kathleen Tracey) do it proud, lacking only the Cunningham dancers' intensity of gaze. (Let's hope NYCB has the sense to include this subtle masterpiece in its own winter season.)

Created 17 years later, Sounddance is an explosion, a cosmic circus. Ten performers emerge one by one from Mark Lancaster's tawny draped tent to David Tudor's stunning cataclysm of an electronic score, engineered on the spot by Takehisa Kosugi. Think back to, say, the luminous serenity of Banu Ogan and Thomas Caley in Biped or Ritter's lofting, dragonfly leaps and the sharp flutterings of the women in Summerspace. And then watch Jean Freebury turn herself into an articulated tornado. In Sounddance, she and the others lash their torsos about and swing into exuberant group stunts. Swinston braces himself to hang onto the hands of colleagues, jittering their feet as if a wind tore at them and they were anxious to go with it. What dancing! What a dance! What a choreographer!

Out on 42nd Street, two women in tricky black bathing suits and shower caps spread a yellow cloth and take the sun. Some passersby are interested enough to stop and watch as it becomes clear that the women, Despina Stamos and Aszure Barton, are dancers who can cut a mean pirouette on concrete and act pert and provocative, while producer Anita Durst hands out cards and invites any and all into the former deli to see a free, lunch-hour performance in the series "Deli Dances," which runs appointed noons and evenings through July 30.

The storefront looks good. I-Beam Design (Suzan Wines and Azin Valy) has suspended large, clear plastic bowls with a little blue liquid in each, which reflect the lights in watery patterns. Some people have been alerted by publicity; some drop in and stay, others wander in and out. Given the venue and the hawking on the street, the audience may expect something a little, well, accessible. It's a bit of a problem, then, when a solo dancer spends long first moments in silence, back to the audience, as Rachel Shao-Lan Blum does in her Gesundheit and Stamos in her Red Herring...a baby fish. Also, given the level floor and folding chairs, a dancer who drops to the ground may drop out of sight if there's a crowd. Too much yearning may not go with summer lunch. Barton's uptempo Saudade (to a tune by V. de Moraes), tastefully showing her charm, her chops, and her musicality, goes down more smoothly than her more temperamental Inside Out.

If Blum, a strong, interesting performer with some choreographic smarts, intensified the build to her final, long-stifled "a-choo!" with a few near explosions in dynamics, her piece might tickle the audience more. Stamos is eager to please, even hands out red candy fish, and rather pointlessly gets a young man up from the audience to hold a bucket for her. As the confused collage of fish-related activities (a glass bowl with what may turn into very sick goldfish, a meow on tape, clawed hands, a dive by Blum from the audience, etc.) heats up, the audience responds to color, personality, and crazy images. "Deli Dances" are like the surprise sandwich of the day; you take your chances. But the programs are free, likable, and air-conditioned. What's to lose?

Letitia Kent, architect turned journalist, was a staff writer for the Voice during the late '60s and wrote trenchant articles for other papers and magazines. My neighbor and friend, she not only sharpened my mind, she was responsible for turning me into a dance critic and getting the Voice to give me space over 30 years ago. I owe her. And, like all who loved her, mourn her untimely death.

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