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A Triptych for Merce Cunningham - Part III: The Merce Cunningham Dance Company at Rockefeller Park - The power and beauty of nature on stage and off

by Mindy Aloff
August 8, 2009
Nelson A. Rockefeller Park
Exact address unknown, but see the links above and below for more information:
http://www.rivertorivernyc.com/venues/Rockefeller_Park.php

New York, NY
A Triptych for Merce Cunningham -
Part I: Reflections on Merce Cunningham's Early Work by Yuriko, an original Martha Graham dancer and Merce colleague
Part II: Chosen Without Comment
Part III: The Merce Cunningham Dance Company at Rockefeller Park - The power and beauty of nature on stage and off
The week in New York following Cunningham's death was marked by daily thunderstorms—a few so severe that several New Yorkers were electrocuted. Could the late Robert Rauschenberg have dressed the stage more spectacularly for his erstwhile friend and collaborator? Or the late David Tudor composed a more theatrically transgressive score? Tudor loved to devise the sound of lightning in his electronic-sound contributions to Cunningham's dances—most notoriously, perhaps, in the first earsplitting crack that detonates Phonemes, the score for Channels/Inserts. At Tudor's own memorial event, in 1996, the thunderstorm outside Judson Church was so fierce that some of the mourners wondered if the spirit of the composer was fiddling with celestial knobs.

After the death of John Cage, in 1992, Cunningham selected composers who gave him very loud scores sometimes, as well as a few soporific ones. Yet even those who had worked for years with Cage and Tudor didn't seem to attempt to provide the concentration-crushing sound cycles that often marked a Cunningham concert in the 1960s through the 1980s. It wasn't just a matter of decibel level; it was timing, texture, everything. Those scores could be thrilling, if you were open to them, but they could also be wickedly destabilizing to the experience of the choreography—real donnybrooks with it. The fact that they had been produced by chance procedures, or by the process of indeterminacy, begged the question. They used to move me, for one, to speculate on just how truly pacific the collaborative process was in Cunningham's world.

In 1968, when I first saw a program by the Cunningham company, which happened to be the occasion of the première of RainForest, with a keenly appropriate sound score by Tudor, Merce Cunningham, himself, was as handsome and furious-eyed in performance as a de Medici prince, and the rest of his company looked like gods or demi-gods who could be roused to all kinds of emotion, even though their technical prowess varied. Today, the dancers in the company all dance like gods yet don't convey the sense that they arrive trailing personal histories: they deliver emotional range, too, but almost entirely through the crescendos and decrescendos of physical intensity in their bodily action—a much more subtle, yet also somewhat less visceral, art in comparison with earlier incarnations of the company, so many of whose performers offered an actor's presence along with a dancer's virtuosity. And yet, today's dancers, more uniform in body type and training than their predecessors, are right for their moment. They offer astounding images in an understated way that is its own beauty. And they can function easily in the technical climate of the late repertory, with its emphasis on speed, precision, and unpredictable physical designs, which mirror the culture around them. Audiences of 2009 are asked to "read" each dance much, much more quickly than in 1968, and also to absorb a dance's affect—which can be complex and powerful—without a moment to let it settle before the onslaught of the next one. You might think that Cunningham had reversed the aging process and actually died at 20 rather than 90, multitasking his concentration across a score of technologies.

During the weekend of August 1st and 2nd, the first weekend after the choreographer's death, the Cunningham company was scheduled to perform three Events—60- or 90-minute anthologies of dances and excerpts from larger works, assembled in an unbroken stream, which the choreographer invented as a practical solution for outdoor stages and other nontraditional venues. These performances, part of the River to River Festival, were sited in Rockefeller Park, a Hudsonside greensward in Battery Park City. I was very glad to be able to see the first one, which took place at 6 p.m. on a magnificent Saturday. The rains of the week had broken (they would return on the 2nd, in full force), and so had the humidity. Under hard blue skies and a sunset that wasn't going down without a fight, yet also amid gentle breezes winging in from the river, a crowd of many hundreds, some sunbathing in shorts or bikinis, sat and lay on the cool grass in radiant patterns around the two stages, placed so that it was possible to see one in the foreground and one in the background, no matter where you were positioned. Between the stages was a cleared path along which the dancers (costumed by Anna Finke in second-skin unitards of richly saturated harvest colors, criss-crossed on the torso by images of leafy tendrils and with the legs dipped up to the knee in somber blacks or browns) continuously traveled as they exchanged bases. To some extent, the arrangement recalled competitive gymnastics events, where different athletes work on different parts of an arena floor (an impression intensified by the audience applause at each stage every time a dance passage concluded). Yet no gymnasts, no matter how remarkable, ever made me think I could die right then and would have led a complete life, as one Cunningham couple did when the woman raised herself high onto the balls of her feet and then, entirely alone, curled her spine backward so far that she fell, to be caught at a stroke by her partner, just before she reached the floor. And then she did it again, and, again he caught her. The first time was not a fluke! This particular duet, drawn from a dance I didn't know, was performed by dancers I couldn't identify: in my case, it was happening for the first time—though for the many company fans who can recognize titles and names, the way naturalists can recognize trees and wildflowers, the experience of the dance would surely be wonderful, too. The rapport between the pair was a marvel: they breathed as one. Their choreography featured tenderly layered wrappings, like the furling of a morning glory as it closes for the night; a spectacular shoulder lift, with the woman opening her embrace, Isadora fashion, to half of New Jersey and, while she was at it, the westering sun; and a more opaque shoulder lift in which the man carried her offstage while he walked backwards, an utterly blind exit. Oh, yes, and his every Renaissance step was ornamented with a little grace-note action — a kind of fluttering of the moving foot around the ankle of the supporting leg (petit battement sur le coup de pied in ballet), which delayed his transfer of weight and, were the dancer not titanically sure, could have imperiled both of them. For me, this duet, in this performance, not only constituted the peak of the Event but also served as a fantastical example of why Cunningham's art deserves to be revered.

I never determined if the dance material on each stage was specific to it or whether every dance or excerpt was performed in each location—although, about two thirds through, there was an event within the Event, which called the full cast, equally divided at that point between the stages (six and six), to a common order.

On the short note of a whistle (or tweet), each individual dropped into or assumed a unique sculptural position on one count simultaneously with every other individual, and then held it, not frozen yet quite still, for a while, until another whistle or tweet released the dancers to assume a different position. During the stillness, the sound score for the Event (by David Behrman and Stephan Moore)—a sequence of tolerable pulses at varying rates, projected from two discretely placed speakers and produced by a variety of electronic voices that often invoked particular sounds of nature or manmade machinery, with the addition of some talking by a distant radio announcer—simply stopped. This happened three times; the first time felt as if the period of suspension was slightly shorter than the second; the third felt as if it were held the longest.

My memory of the first group of poses at the stage closest to where I sat was that they were mostly on or directed towards the stage floor, and that, by the third group—the group held so long that it was almost disturbing to contemplate them—the dancers were mostly upright.

And yet, the most impressive thing about these stillnesses was not the peculiarity of seeing live human beings unmoving together in strange positions for so long, or even the symbolic invocation they represented of life that had stopped, along with its somewhat comforting yet completely unhummable music. It was that the world continued. People watching from balconies on the surrounding apartment towers could be seen to shift position. Pedestrians outside the park sustained the pace of their walking. Cars honked; a bird glided on a current of air. John Cage's proposal that, outside a special scientific chamber, there is really no such thing as "silence" was reified once again, and how startling it was to encounter. In a recent E-mail, David Vaughan, the archivist for the Cunningham company, wrote: "The pause in the Event was a version of 4'33" [the famous work by John Cage in which no music or composed sound is played for a period of exactly four minutes and 33 seconds]. We did such a thing in an Event in Central Park in the summer of 1994, and subsequently in a few Events. I'm not sure if it was Robert [Swinston, who has served for many years as the Assistant to Merce Cunningham] or Trevor [Carlson, Executive Director of the Cunningham company]. The dancers choose their own positions. It was extraordinary, and very moving, that the crowd too fell silent and still."

Nor, given the breathing of the dancers, were they completely still. The reassignment this implies of who or what controls the definition of 'absolute'—from religion, art, and psychology to scientific measurement of nature—is not a philosophical gesture that makes me entirely comfortable, yet it always gives me pause. On this late afternoon, though, the pause felt like a tear in time-space, through which could be glimpsed eternity.



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