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Fall Arts: The Merce Cunningham Company Dances to an End

1999's BIPED
Stephanie Berger

A choreographer dies; the work lives on. Or does it? And if the artist in question has created and maintained a company devoted to the performance of his/her dances, what then? In the final decades of the 20th century, we lost José Limón, George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Alwin Nikolais, and, in 2009, Merce Cunningham. A while before his death at 90, Cunningham made a sobering decision. On December 31, 2011, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company ends the second year of its Legacy Tour, gives its final performance, and ceases to exist.

Cunningham must have considered how his late contemporaries had handled their heritages and decided against following their examples. The Limón and Graham companies have soldiered on—keeping classics of the repertory polished, commissioning new works that, with luck, complement those of the master, and developing strategies to attract those too young to have seen the companies when their founders were alive. Nikolais's works have a home in Salt Lake City's Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, a separate adjunct to the organization's contemporary repertory.

Balanchine's New York City Ballet has always been to some degree a repertory company, although his work predominates. A large, well-supported establishment, NYCB commissions gifted choreographers who work with the classical vocabulary, but it too must come up with attention-getting projects (consider Peter Martins's Ocean's Kingdom to the first-ever ballet score by Sir Paul McCartney, premiering September 22).

It's not surprising that Merce Cunningham didn't envision a future for his company without him. As an artist, he appeared to think in the present tense, to live in the moment. Like the philosopher Heraclitus, he clearly believed that you couldn't step into the same stream twice. Along with his longtime musical director and partner, John Cage, he embraced the riskiness of chance procedures in composition, and unforeseen intersections of dance, music, and décor in performance. He wanted dancing to mean itself or to mean whatever the spectator wanted it to. He could be slightly entrancingly enigmatic—once writing, for instance, that "the body shooting into space is not an idea of man's freedom, but is the body shooting into space. And that very action ... is man's freedom." He referred to climaxes in choreography as "privileged moments" and did his best to avoid them.

Cunningham's dances will live on, licensed to other organizations and rehearsed by those well-versed in the repertory and the style. But as of January 1, 2012, we will not have the last group of superb dancers that he picked and groomed and built works on. It could break your heart. His decision, nonetheless, was a brave and understandable one. He leaves us with the memory of an ensemble at its peak, of his dances as he loved to see them.

The present company has been touring strenuously during its allotted two years. In 2011 alone, the 14 dancers have been applauded in London, Paris, Berlin, Jerusalem, Mexico City, and elsewhere abroad, as well as in American cities and university towns. They've gradually been saying goodbye to the repertory, even as they greet it in every theater with full fervor.

New York has two chances before the end of the year to feast on Cunningham's work: six dances and four performances during the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival, and the final hurrah—six Events performed over three days on three stages at the Park Avenue Armory—ending on New Year's Eve. Tears for champagne.

December 7–10,
BAM's Howard Gilman Opera House,
30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, bam.org;

December 29–31,
Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Avenue,
armoryonpark.org


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