Merce Cunningham’s new Way Station is aptly titled. His 16 remarkable dancers populate it sparsely. As in the 1958 Summerspace (masterfully revived for the company’s City Center season last week), people appear, tarry a few moments, and dart away on some vital errand. But when watching Summerspace, with its lovely pointillist backdrop and matching costumes by Robert Rauschenberg, you imagine a vast field, humming with tiny activities and extending beyond the confines of the stage. Way Station suggests an oasis where beautiful, tranquil people can find rest and solitude on their way to some unknown destination.
The place is curious, and James Hall’s costumes, with their bold patterns somewhat reminiscent of American Indian pottery and their tacked-on bits of flying cloth, are stylistically at odds with Charles Long’s Tripods. These tall, three-legged shapes—like rigid, footed jellyfish in jelly-bean colors—create arched refuges that alter our perception of the space and partially conceal the dancers. You become intensely aware of the interplay among two or three figures moving subtly, inquisitively, in place, and others who run in to create a brief flurry of activity. Takehisa Kosugi’s electronic music howls and buzzes harmlessly around them. There is a beautiful, grave duet for Derry Swan and Cédric Andrieux, but much of the time, Cunningham makes you aware of the distances that seem to stretch between these people with their long, probing legs, their predilection for walking on tiptoe, their sudden, bursting jumps. A throng is almost a shock.
It’s fascinating to see Way Station programmed between Summerspace and the 1968 RainForest, both of which feature communities of only six dancers. RainForest, set amid Andy Warhol’s floating silver pillows, is as close as Cunningham gets to drama. Critic Martin Gottfried’s flippant 1969 review shocked fans at the time, but his exegesis doesn’t seem that preposterous: “The story seems to be about one man seducing another’s girl, then another man stealing the man and so on for a while.” The dance, wonderfully performed by Robert Swinston, Jeannie Steele, Jonah Bokaer, Holley Farmer, Andrieux, and Swan, does imply territoriality and hierarchies within a tribe. When Bokaer scuttles across the floor on his belly with Steele draped over his back, and Andrieux, kneeling, pushes her off Bokaer with his head, there’s no point pretending Cunningham is uninterested in human emotion.
The cast of Summerspace is also superb: Lisa Boudreau (alive in a new and seductive way), Paige Cunningham, Koji Minato, Daniel Squire (Minato small, dark, and resilient, Squire tall, blond, and bold in space—both of them marvels), and Jennifer Goggins and Jean Freebury, who elegantly re-create roles originated by Carolyn Brown and Viola Farber.
The New York premiere, Interscape, is another sort of piece entirely. The dancers may come and go, as is typical with Cunningham, but they also flock. And they have a gorgeous place to inhabit: The backdrop is a vivid silk-screen collage by Rauschenberg, with (for the first few minutes of the piece) a semitransparent black-and-white version of itself in the foreground. Behind it we can see a few dancers stretching, moving slowly. Each of the 14 wears a different Rauschenberg in the form of a silk-screened unitard. Aaron Copp’s lighting increases the sense of sunshine. The music, John Cage’s One8, is played by cellist Loren Kyoshi Dempster, who makes the instrument sing, pulse, groan, and squeal like a rubbed balloon. As the piece ends, four women stand, contemplating the center, or each other across the center, as if they’ve found a good place to stay.
Interscape is a long marvel of a dance. Time as duration ceases to have much meaning, rather like the handless clock face on Squire’s costume. But time as the play of speed against slow movement against stillness is endlessly fascinating. While, at the back, Steele and Swan readjust their limbs slowly—side by side but unalike in their motions—others enter in front of them with more energetic steps: now Goggins, Farmer, and Cheryl Therrien, now the fleet-footed Farmer back again with Andrieux. The first two women go about their quiet business until Squire enters for a long, beautiful solo rife with balances and other absorbing tasks. Wonders happen all around. There’s a stunning duet for Boudreau and Andrieux; the way she leans back against his slightly resistant body, touches her head to his, straightens up, looks at him, and leans again says more than many intentionally dramatic moments in other choreographers’ works. You can relax your concentration for a few seconds and come back. This is life in all its richness; it goes on with or without you.
I was constantly struck by the vividness of the dancers. They’re virtuosos, yet we feel we know them because the dynamics of Cunningham choreography let us observe them watching and thinking and living in the world of their dancing.
Wendy Osserman honors her company’s 25th year by reaffirming her commitment to sisterhood, motherhood, and communities of women. I’m sure that the dancers in her new duet, Portrait of a Daughter II, and last year’s Trio (shown at St. Mark’s) separate and move out into space, but when I rewind the pieces in my head, I see the performers clustering, interweaving; their gestures span small distances to touch a shoulder or reach toward a cheek. In the duet, we may imagine Debra Welinder Keller to be the mother and Victoria Lundell the daughter, but they stride as if toward their own reflections, and Keller rests her head on Lundell’s knee. Stefanie Nelson may be the youngest and most playful of three siblings in Trio, but their close, swirling circles form a mandala embodying equality.
In the enigmatic Body of Work, to a commissioned score by Daniel Bernard Roumain, we first see Lundell, Nelson, Aszure Barton, and Nell Breyer piled up on the altar steps—lit by Philip W. Sandstrom in an amazing effect that outlines the architecture in blue and green. Here the women do branch out into space—fall into soft canons, walk together—and they explore temporary partnerships and rivalries, looking up toward the end as if something were bearing down on them. I like the dance’s tenderness and shifting currents, but its unvarying dynamic undercuts its power.
Just as Portrait of a Daughter has the most impact when movement (rather than perplexing facial expressions) carries feeling, Osserman’s solo, Anti-Struggle, is most engaging when she’s focused on the task at hand—for example, dragging resistant violinist Roumain away from his instrument by one foot, she remarks unsympathetically, “I told you the floor plan.” In this talking dance about her predilection for grappling, tension often makes her seem arch and gives her efforts to tie herself in knots an unappealing petulance, at odds with her usual warm persona.