Looking Back With Love

Merce Cunningham at Lincoln Center, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane at Jacob’s Pillow

The audience rose to its feet at the end of each of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company's Lincoln Center Festival performances at New York State Theater. We cheered for the marvelous works and the brilliant dancers. We cheered because Cunningham at 83 is celebrating what the season title hails as the company's "50 Years of Forward Motion" and because he shows every sign of plowing ahead, creaky joints be damned. (This is a man who, needing a wheelchair for airport corridors, is attempting to relearn the time step in a sitting position.)

Whether we know it or not, we're also applauding because Cunningham and his late musical director and partner, composer John Cage, altered our eyes and ears, teaching us to understand silence as a companion to sound and stillness as motion's lover. Before anyone talked of "negative space," Cunningham made us see it, and he exposed people unlikely to read Einstein to the vision of space as an open field devoid of fixed points.

In the years since Cunningham founded a small company at Black Mountain College during the summer of 1953, his dances, and even more so, Cage's music, have provoked some spectators—depriving them of narrative, conventional hierarchical and harmonic structures, and a hand-in-hand relationship between music, choreography, and decor. That the two men were not more maligned has to do, I think, with the elegance of their work—even in those compositions of Cage and his colleagues that assault our ears. In Cunningham's choreography, this elegance has nothing to do with display or ornamentation, but with fastidious craftsmanship and his dancers' erect bearing; their probing limbs; their air of serene intelligence; the way they give everything to the moment at hand with no excess.

Aperture has just published a book by Cunningham, Other Animals: Drawings and Journals. Every morning this man, who now uses the Lifeforms computer program as an aid in generating movement, sits and draws beguiling impressions of birds and animals (they have wise and witty eyes). I see no irony. He has written admiringly of animals' directness and efficiency in motion, and you see this in his dances. Especially in the earliest work on the Lincoln Center programs, the stunningly beautiful Suite for Five (1956-58), there is something creaturely in the dancers' quiet intensity, in the economy of their moves. This is a piece full of watching and waiting, in which, as a friend said, there is no cholesterol. The sounds of Cage's music for prepared piano (played by composer Christian Wolff) drop sparingly into quiet and sparsely populated space. When Cédric Andrieux, squatting, slowly extends one leg in front of him, bends it, extends it again, bends it, there is, for a moment, nothing in the world but that gesture. When Derry Swan shivers one leg as she slowly raises it to the side, its trajectory is imprinted on your brain. Daniel Roberts, Jeannie Steele, and Cheryl Therrien dance together as if they're having a conversation with no chitchat but many unexpected and surprising remarks. Swan and Andrieux perform, magnificently, the duet Cunningham made for himself and Carolyn Brown (who together restaged it for this celebration), and even if you understand how chance procedures figured in its making, you perceive it as rich with implicit feeling. Love and chance are partners anyway, no?

When Cunningham made Pictures in 1984 and Fabrications in 1987, his company was much larger, although the 15 people in each are rarely all onstage. Pictures—abetted by David Behrman's music, with its delicate use of violin, and Mark Lancaster's lighting—repeatedly isolates small groups, maybe two at a time, in complex, but visually clear linked poses, as if they were being recorded for some inner photo album. In Fabrications, the women's retro dresses by Dove Bradshaw and the voices emerging from Emanuel Dimas De Melo Pimenta's score as if from an old radio enhance the image of community, of people watching out for one another, and the curious tenderness that emanates from the choreography (excellently restaged by Patricia Lent).

It's interesting to compare How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run (1965) with Cunningham's latest, Loose Time (2002). The nine dancers in the earlier work swing in and out of vigorous, ingenious activities that have the feel of lighthearted games without imitating them. And instead of sportscasters, we have Cunningham and David Vaughan reading John Cage's witty deadpan anecdotes. Wearing gray velvet jumpsuits, the 16 dancers in the new piece are cyber-athletes, their bodies programmed to manage several different rhythms and coordinations simultaneously, their stamina heroic. Terry Winters's trompe l'oeil set suggests layers of tennis netting intricately bent on a red background, and Julie Josephson's trombone pierces the texture of Christian Wolff's Moving Spacesfor violin, piano, and electronic sound. This is one of Cunningham's rigorous pieces, like Torsefrom 1976. The dancers' bodies and necks bend more than they do in Fabrications, yet the impression is one of impulses controlled with superb precision. In brief solos for Jonah Bokaer and Daniel Squire, and a longer one for Holley Farmer, you imagine the movement being segmented and put together simultaneously before your eyes. Farmer is thoroughly amazing.

But, then, all of them are splendid. (I have to single out Robert Swinston, who in spite of his responsibilities re-staging and rehearsing dances, is performing more wonderfully than ever.) Mélange, a 2001 videodance by Cunningham and Charles Atlas, shows, via little works in different settings, some who are no longer in the company, and a two-part "anniversary video montage" offers glimpses of those who embodied and projected Cunningham's ideas over half a century. At one point, their names scroll down the screen year by year. For once, I wanted one of those gala shebangs in which all the dancers who've ever worked for Merce would walk onto the stage with the ghosts of those no longer living so that we could salute them for all that they gave him. And us.

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