Theater archives

Sonic Youth and Led Zep’s John Paul Jones Score Merce Cunningham


Merce Cunningham doesn’t need a poet son like Dylan Thomas to adjure him to “rage against the dying of the light.” His light is burning very bright, and the “rage” of this 90-year-old genius is not anger, but a fierce joy in creating dances. For him, work is a kind of divine play, where a roll of the dice can summon up unforeseen beauty and its strange stepchildren.

He thrives on risk and surprise. Like all of his works, Nearly Ninety, which premiered on his birthday, mates choreography with music, set, and costumes that have been designed independently. The piece is a vivid 90-minute package of profoundly imaginative dancing and phantasmagorical visual and aural effects.

Cunningham studied at the Cornish School in Seattle, and several of his dances (Beach Birds and Inlets, for example) conjure up shore life. I listen to Nearly Ninety‘s overture—composed and performed by John Paul Jones (a founding member of Led Zeppelin), Takehisa Kosugi (Cunningham’s music director), and Sonic Youth (Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, and Steve Shelley)—and in the growing fog of sound, I imagine bells and gulls and the seductive call of sirens. Behind a scrim, the musicians nesting in architect Benedetta Tagliabue’s set, as well as the set itself, appear as giant shadows in a green glow pierced by flashing beams (amazing lighting by Brian MacDevitt). Franc Aleu’s video constructions of white panels periodically sail across the scrim like bizarre ships.

The superb dancers arrive gradually in pairs, wearing Romeo Gigli’s flesh-colored unitards, patched in black and with a black sleeve gloving their right hands. Rashaun Mitchell and Andrea Weber lay out the theme of limbs intersecting and crossing in unusual ways. When each performer stands in arabesque, the two are angled so that his head is close to her lifted leg. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Cunningham piece in which the dancers so often balance on one foot and turn very slowly, like weathervanes in a minimal breeze. Snail’s-pace action that’s marooned in space alternates with passages of leaping or hustling around in many entrancing ways. While Daniel Madoff (wonderful at devouring territory without false urgency) is moving at a leisurely pace, Julie Cunningham frisks in to join him, kicking up her legs behind her.

The choreography plays with the idea of replacement in its duets: Brandon Collwes takes Cunningham over from Madoff; Emma Desjardins replaces Cunningham; then Silas Riener dances with Desjardins, until Weber replaces her. And so on. The rapid entrances and exits never stop the flow of cool, endlessly imaginative arrangements and rearrangements of two bodies and eight long limbs.

When the scrim rises, we can see that Tagliabue’s magical construction is smaller than its shadows were. Made of tubular metal, its staircases, platforms, and ladders twist upward, and the whole thing gets turned twice. MacDevitt plays gaudy, discotheque games with the lighting, and video projections of widening ripples of water appear intermittently. The musicians hang out at various levels, sometimes watching the dancers. Their shifting textures make a gorgeous row (Sonic Youth are famous for unconventional tunings and for inserting objects under an instrument’s strings, like Cunningham’s longtime colleague John Cage).

The choreographer turns his attention to trios. Gradually progressing across the stage, Riener and Koji Mizuta flank Holley Farmer, bending her back, letting her lean far forward. Farmer’s like a powerful figurehead pulling the ship that supports her. (Sadly, this is the last time we’ll see her, Mizuta, or Daniel Squire in Merce Cunningham’s company—all three have been let go.) Later, quartets get a workout. And solos. The dancing keeps our eyes and minds busy. Do we watch Mizuta, Weber, Squire, and Jennifer Goggans vaulting about, or do we focus on a ramp above the musicians where Julie Cunningham is spooling out slow balances? Three couples involved in the same movement phrases at the same time are never in perfect unison.

Merce’s vision of the body is essentially Apollonian. His dancers wield their long, articulate legs in amazing ways, while remaining serene and centered. When they wrench their bodies into a backward arch or a sideways bend, they do so without passion. All of them (including Marcie Munnerlyn and Melissa Toogood) come and go, intent on their beautiful business and as natural in their calm purposefulness as if they were threading through a supermarket’s aisles.

On opening night, after all the speeches, Audra MacDonald sang a lovely, witty “Happy Birthday” to Merce, who (spiffy in a gray-velvet suit) told us from his wheelchair that he once overheard his father say that if young Mercier didn’t become a dancer, he was probably going to be a crook. Right. Hasn’t he stolen the complacency of dance lovers all over the world? And given us new eyes in return?