A Farewell to Merce Cunningham; Disciple Karole Armitage’s Journey Into a World of Fusion

The Park Avenue Armory occupies most of a New York City block. Its main hall measures 55,000 square feet, and the curve of its roof soars to 80 feet. Without the little booths that stuff it during antiques shows, but full of people—clumped or wandering singly—it resembles as much a grand 19th-century train station as it does a drill hall. Merce Cunningham would surely have enjoyed the dance that eddied and flowed over the vast floor at the Memorial in his honor. Enjoyed, too, the music of the many composers whose works accompanied his own (never hand-in-hand) that floats down from the balcony, and snarls and sings out above the thousand or so people come to remember him. He was a man who looked at traffic patterns, and shore birds, and supermarket aisles and thought about the order within apparent chaos.

For over five hours, the place is a glorious three-ring dance circus, with three big square black floors, bordered in lights cutting a diagonal across the space. We clutch the schedules that tell us what’s going on when and where (it’s nice to know that Pepper Sajans, Merce’s personal assistant during his last years, programmed the evening through chance procedures). We hope for seats, although we’ve been warned that fewer than 300 are available; we stand, sit on the floor when we have to. Avoiding the carpeted paths for the dancers, we greet friends, search for others (hopeless), point out former Cunningham dancers, like Carolyn Brown, and famous collaborators, like Jasper Johns. Someone says he saw Steve Paxton coming in.

“Events in honor of Merce  - Memorial” in the Park Avenue Armory.
Stephanie Berger
“Events in honor of Merce - Memorial” in the Park Avenue Armory.
Megumi Eda and Zoko Zoko in Karole Armitage’s "Itutu."
Courtesy Armitage Gone! Dance
Megumi Eda and Zoko Zoko in Karole Armitage’s "Itutu."

Details

Events in honor of Merce – Memorial
Park Avenue Armory
October 28, 2009

Armitage Gone! Dance/Burkina Electric
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House
November 4 through 7

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The Memorial begins—and nears its end—with the present Cunningham Dance Company performing an excerpt from the 1970 Second Hand, followed by an Event (those last-minute patchworks of sections drawn from various Cunningham pieces). In their red-and-orange unitards (by Anna Finke), the 14 dancers who come and go look like fingers of flame in the immense space (elegantly lit by Christine Shallenberg).

Cunningham was 50 when he made Second Hand. He may—or may not—have had his first inklings of mortality. In any case, he set it to a piano reduction of Erik Satie’s Socrate. Satie’s estate refused to let the music be used, and John Cage, Cunningham’s music director and partner, composed a piano piece that followed the structure and several other aspects of Satie’s work and called it Cheap Imitation. Second Hand is one of very few dances that Cunningham coordinated with its music. At the Armory, we see only the third section, the one that Satie called “The Death of Socrates.” A recording of John Cage playing his score accompanies the braidings and chainings, the posings and dartings of the youthful dancers, while Robert Swinston (still billed as assistant to the choreographer) assumes Merce’s role—watching them, prowling among them. On this occasion, the resonance is extraordinary.

Watching the Event, which takes place on all three stages, I’m reminded yet again of how witty Cunningham’s choreography can be and how delightful it is when the dancers are secretly amused too. Julie Cunningham, Emma Desjardins, Daniel Madoff, and Swinston perform a particular quartet in the Event with an intent focus that brings out its ingenious eccentricity and its mischievous, straight-faced allusions to the tangles of more traditional pas de deux.

One of the pleasures is seeing the company alumni return to appear in five-minute excerpts from Cunningham works they once danced. Robert Wood in Five Stone Wind(1988)! Ellen Cornfield and Jim Self in Changing Steps (1975)! Cornfield and Jean Freebury, Kristy Santimyer Melita and Carol Teitelbaum in the “arm duet” from the same work! Neil Greenberg in Roaratorio (1983)! Gus Solomons, jr leading a cadre in the back exercises from a Cunningham technique class! Why can’t I be in several places at once? Over by Stage 3, riveted by Daniel Roberts’s performance of the 1942 solo Totem Ancestor (jumping from a squat to his knees and back to a squat and rising to do it again), I miss the wonderful Holley Farmer, who’s performing at the same time on Stage 1, wearing, I’m told, a swirling, multi-layered red evening gown.

Among the alumni performing, Valda Setterfield—a celebrity in downtown dance and theater—is probably the earliest company member and Farmer the most recently departed. Recognizing all those whose tenure fell between 1960 and 2009 becomes a kind of game that’s both illuminating and saddening. Some dancers are as nimble as ever; some are a little heavier than they once were but still lively; some have been sidelined by injury or years of not dancing. A few have gray hair; a few have almost no hair. But this event accommodates them all. A passage from the 1969 Canfield, for example, involves as much waiting as it does walking, and not a single dancer has forgotten the intensity that comes from understanding the stillness in motion and the motion deep within stillness.

Because I’m due at a performance downtown, I have to rely on my imagination and the words of others to envision the musical conclusion. For the final five minutes of the evening, Meredith Monk sang an excerpt from her Porches.They say her uncannily beautiful voice floated out over that immense space, now emptied of dancing, like a benison offered by a secular angel. I imagine her addressing the author of this day’s great congregating, and detect in her wordless song what’s in my heart: “Because of you, Merce, we art-makers, we art-watchers are changed. And for that—and so much more—we love you.”


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