Merce’s Major Events


For scholars of Merce Cunningham and former Cunningham dancers, seeing one of the company’s Events is like browsing through a family album. “Wasn’t that from Suite for Five?!” For everyone else, an Event is simply 90 minutes of remarkable choreography and dancing—classical in its formal, plotless intensity, yet venturing into the strange, the off-kilter, the unexpected.

These assemblages, like the six different ones shown at the Joyce last week, celebrate Cunningham’s ongoing love affair with risk. The dancers rehearse excerpts from the repertory, but discover only at the next-to-last minute the Event’s makeup and the order of its parts. The music comes as a surprise. Clad in glossy royal blue unitards, the cast begins the opening-night performance with the kind of dancing that makes some people think of Cunningham as dry. Their bodies are still, their arms stiffly posed, their legs flashing, their feet rapid. Facing the audience, tilting from side to side, they look almost two-dimensional. And what do they hear? The living voice of Meredith Monk, quiet and slightly eerie, rising above the twang of her Jew’s harp.

Actions in this universe seem to have no cause and effect; we see them as demanding and beautiful tasks requiring the utmost concentration, liberated from past and future but intensely involved with variations in pulse, rhythm, and dynamics.

Monk anthologizes her own repertoire; a witchy song from her Education of the Girlchild, sung in a cracked little voice, accompanies a passage for two couples—Jeannie Steele and Daniel Squire, Derry Swan and Cédric Andrieux—doing different not-ballroom dances in ballroom proximity. Another risky surprise: Monk’s compositions (Theo Bleckmann joins her on certain vocals) alternate with—even mate with—the electronic and electronically manipulated sounds that Takehisa Kosugi and Paul De Marinis create alone and together on the opposite side of the theater. In the frequent silences, you can listen to the whoosh-whoosh of Olafur Eliasson’s decor; beside a large convex mirror that captures the dancing sits a low horizontal box holding a flexing belt of small metal slabs.

The unitards gradually change from blue to orange; no symbolic meaning here, just an affirmation of time passing. If Aaron Copp’s lighting occasionally goes on and off for no climactic reason, well, why not? An Event is a busy affair. Four people lie down for about a second, then race off, ceding the stage to Holley Farmer, who, poised on half-toe, serenely rearranges her upper body in relation to her hips; seldom has the word undulate seemed so onomatopoetic. Actions in this universe seem to have no cause and effect; we see them as demanding and beautiful tasks requiring the utmost concentration, liberated from past and future but intensely involved with variations in pulse, rhythm, and dynamics. For an hour and a half, there’s virtually no fidgeting. Spectators and dancers live together in the moment—whether that moment is a tender duet by Swan and Andrieux, a legato stream of slow balances by Swan and Cheryl Therrien wearing long gray sleeves over their unitards, or a playful, close-linked trio from Rondo danced by Koji Minato, Therrien, and Farmer.

Cunningham has six new dancers, and they’re all fine. Paige Cunningham’s a tall, ripe mover (Merce’s current version of Viola Farber), Andrieux a tender and nuanced presence. Ashley Chen is impressive as well. Longtime company members Robert Swinston and Jeannie Steele enrich whatever they do, and the whole troupe performs with the calm fervor—Apollonian with a hint of the Dionysian—that makes dancing seem like one of the world’s most profound acts.

Hernando Cortez makes a solo for Nikolaj Hübbe of the New York City Ballet (guesting at Danspace with Cortez’s company two weeks ago) as if he can’t get enough of Hübbe spinning out attitude turns in half-light to the music of Philip Glass. What’s interesting is how Hübbe shapes what amounts to a surfeit of luxurious movement—teasing it here, pressuring it there. That’s virtuosity.

Cortez is best at fashioning single clear ideas or obvious dualities. His new Earthbeat is a celebratory swirl of big, lovely movements, which the performers parade with the mission of having a good time and seducing the audience. The music ranges from Cuban to a Latvian women’s choir. Francisco Graciano excels in a bold solo. Liz Flynn, Joan Chiang, and Liv Isaacs-Nollet dance a clever-silly girlfriends trio that’s one of the evening’s highlights. Nicholas Villeneuve presses Djassi Camara Johnson into slow, lyrical lifts.

But the new Like Being Awake Sleeping and Hearing Seeing is still as fuzzy as its title. Is everything being dreamed by Liz Flynn (to Steve Reich and something that sounds like elevator music)? What does it mean when women borrow the train from Chiang’s handsome dress by Edward Sylvia? And when Flynn wraps it around her throat? Who is Johnson meant to be in that red-veined white outfit and man’s hat, her face veiled? Why the inside-out umbrellas? What do the wind and water sounds signify? I watch the dramatic stares, the excellent dancing, and wonder if I’m losing my mind.

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