Theater archives

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s Long Goodbye


The members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company are dancing as if there’s no tomorrow. And in a sense that’s true. These 15 supremely gifted performers are in the second year of the strenuous Legacy Tour, after which, in accord with Cunningham’s wishes, they will disband. New Yorkers can see them on July 16 at the Lincoln Center Festival, in December at BAM, and then weep them out on New Year’s Eve at the Park Avenue Armory.

The works astutely selected for the group’s Joyce season showed several aspects of Cunningham’s creative imagination. Crwdspcr (1993) was one of the first pieces the choreographer made with the computer program then known as LifeForms (now DanceForms). The ways he chose to space and pace his crowd often juxtapose still or barely moving people with rapid, athletic frolicking by individuals or small groups. As in most Cunningham works, these 13 dancers make their legs look longer and straighter than most people’s and their feet quicker; deviations into crookedness and bentness become all the more engaging. In Crwdspcr, people use their arms in a distinctive manner, held up in a V or angled at the elbows.

They wear subtly patched multi-hued unitards by Mark Lancaster, and John King’s score for an electronically transformed Dobro steel guitar surrounds them via multiple speakers. The piece crackles with underplayed wit. In one encounter, Daniel Madoff sticks one leg out behind him, and Brandon Collwes, busy nearby, catches Madoff’s big toe as he passes and gives his colleague a spin. But there are also meditative passages, like a solo that tall Emma Desjardins performs, very beautifully, alone onstage.

The heart of the program is Quartet (1982). As in the gallantly comic Gallopade of 1981, Cunningham made us sense his role as the sixtysomething master of a crew of nimble young things. But Quartet—actually a quintet set to David Tudor’s Sextet for Seven—is darker, with the choreographer more of an outsider in his own creation. Robert Swinston, in Cunningham’s role, spends much of his time standing at the back of the stage, bending carefully to one side, making experimental gestures with a curved arm, examining the floor. The busy, nimble Collwes, Jennifer Goggins, Krista Nelson, and Melissa Toogood seem not to see him, even when he’s briefly caught between Collwes and Toogood, as in a game of London Bridge. When Nelson nears him and embarks on a phrase of movement, it’s he who attempts to copy her.

Swinston, the company’s valiant director of choreography, is close to the age Cunningham was when he made Quartet, although his physical skills appear undiminished. He has channeled Cunningham’s own heartbreaking performance in Quartet so accurately that he gives you chills. The restrained wildness, the puzzled gaze, the curious, awkward movements are all there. His performance is a profoundly moving tribute to a choreographer whose works he has spent over 30 years dancing.

Antic Meet (1958) proves that Cunningham could crack an onstage joke with élan. This vaudeville of little acts—with its crazily imaginative décor and costumes by Robert Rauschenberg (at the time, the company’s resident designer)—is an absurdist riot. Christian Wolff (piano), David Behrman and Takehisa Kosugi (violins), John King (viola), and Carol Robinson (basset horn) give John Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra a fine workout, and the six-person cast I saw captures the spirit of Antic Meet with verve.

A man with a chair strapped onto his back (Rashaun Mitchell in Cunningham’s role) has a date with a woman in a Victorian nightgown (Marcie Munnerlyn), who emerges from behind a freestanding door. Munnerlyn and Andrea Weber dance in busy-footed, comradely unison, but Weber also tosses imaginary stones at Munnerlyn and gets dowsed in imaginary water. An acrobatic joust between Mitchell and Silas Riener leaves Riener floored until Mitchell re-enters in a big fur coat and drags him away. A standout among the charmingly foolish vignettes has Mitchell trapped inside a many-sleeved sweater, struggling in vain to find a head-hole, while three suspiciously Martha Graham–esque maidens in huge skirts made of parachutes stalk around him.

When 2012 begins, MCDC dancers and staff will be sent off with severance pay. Costumes and sets by the likes of Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns have been bought by Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center. Still in contention (and jeopardy) is the school that has been training so many dancers for so long and could be vital for preserving the style and technique.

Cunningham was wise and brave to decide that his company should disappear in peak condition two years after his death, without having to wrestle with the issues that have confronted Graham’s company and that of José Limón. But we are allowed to mourn.