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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.

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.”

Karole Armitage danced with Merce Cunningham’s company from 1976 to 1981. Before that, she danced Balanchine works in the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève. She likes the members of her company, Armitage Gone! Dance, to fling their legs high and be precise with their feet. She first attracted attention as a choreographer with her forays into punk, after which she spent a lot of time choreographing in Europe, returning here in the 1990s with some less than terrific works. Then she hit her stride with fascinating ones like the 2004 Time Is the Echo of an Axe Within a Wood, set to music by Bela Bartok, and her 2008 Connoisseurs of Chaos, to a composition by Morton Feldman.

She’s also adventurous. In Nadaswaram (2001), to music by Talvin Singh, she attempted a fusion of ballet, Bharata Natyam, and hip-hop. Her new Itutu represents an excursion into melding hyper-ballet, Afropop, and traditional African dance styles. In these multicultural days, her decision isn’t too surprising, but the result is baffling. The music is provided by Burkina Electric, with some of it masterminded by band member Lukas Ligeti (the son of Gyorgy Ligeti, to whose compositions Armitage has also choreographed). The ensemble’s singer-dancer Maï Lingani, guitarist Wende K. Blass, and dancers Vicky and Zoko Zoko are onstage, mingling with the 11 members of Armitage’s company; Ligeti and Pyrolator are in the opera house pit, managing percussion and electronics.

In an interview prior to the performance, Armitage mentioned that “itutu” means “cool” in Yoruba, and cites art historian Robert Farris Thompson’s discussion of cool as a quality considered desirable in many African dance forms. But in Thompson’s African Art in Motion, he links the projection of cool with the feelings of repose and peacefulness it induces in spectators. Coolness doesn’t mean lack of vitality; it has to do, in part, with composure (in this sense, Merce Cunningham is—was—cool; ditto Savion Glover). Here’s a fine comment that Thompson quotes: “It cools the town when you dance.”

Itutu, on the other hand, makes the town hot. It’s not messy, but it is loud and bright and heated. When Lingani starts to sing, her rich, powerful voice is so over-mic’d that it makes my stomach rustle. The set, by Philip Taaffe, is bright but controlled. Transparent backdrops with simple, red, orange, or white patterns become a complex, stylized jungle when they overlap, and Clifton Taylor’s lighting makes the surface behind them glow. Some of Peter Speliopolous’s costumes echo those designs in black and white, but for one sequence, the women performers inexplicably appear in eye-catchingly gaudy floral skirts.

In a sense, Armitage’s approach is pretty basic. The Burkina Electric dancers mostly hunker down, ripple their bodies, shimmy, and make their feet fly with wonderful vigor. The Armitage Gone! dancers either echo this style or do expansive balletic steps (countless times, they throw one curved arm up and one bent leg high behind them). But neither group explores the subtle aspect of either style. Sometimes a compromise occurs, and all the performers together tackle steps that have an African flavor but venture into more Western stylizations. I’ve never known Armitage to employ such a restricted, uncomplicated vocabulary. The choreography responds to the vivid, propulsive music’s polyrhythms with speed and pressure.

The choreographic patterns acknowledge tribal traditions: the circle forming around a soloist, the sideways stepping line. But the mingling of styles often boils down to personal “conversations” in movement, in which the performers often seem at cross purposes or make casual use of one another. In one early passage, the wonderful Megumi Eda supports herself by holding onto guitarist Blass; Leonides D. Arpon (a live wire) gets up from where he’s sitting with Lingani, watching the two, and takes Eda over for a few seconds. He and Lingani then sit back to back while Eda and Blass press their foreheads together. What exactly has been achieved—either in artistic structuring or interpersonal, cross-cultural relationships—is moot. Maybe it’s an enigmatic glimpse into an episode, but it has no more weight than does a sequence in which the performers stride forward and back like runway models, throwing us those sultry, buy-me-and-watch-what-happens look. So they look at Top Model in Burkino Faso. And? Once, a spotlight shows Zoko Zoko high up in a sudden “window” in the backdrop. This seems important, but what is it?

The dancers are a pleasure to watch: Those not yet mentioned are Kristina Bethel-Blunt, William Isaac, Luke Manley, Abbey Roesner, Bennyroyce Royon, Marlon Taylor-Wiles, Emily Wagner, Mei-Hua Wang, and Masayo Yamaguchi. Eda shines with Zoko Zoko in several variants of a pas de deux. The fabulous, long-limbed Bethel-Blunt and Arpon dance arrestingly, while others lie curled on the ground like slain (or sleeping) animals. Lingani is a mesmerizing presence, whether singing or moving vigorously. The opening audience’s wild applause was, in good part, for the power of the performers, for their stamina, their virtuosity, and their beauty. And, in case you hadn’t noticed, audiences these days like extremes: loud, bright, hyper-kinetic, fast. Hot is the new cool.