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Going to See Merce

Saying Farewell to a Legend: Merce Cunningham Dance Company

by Dean Speer

October 29, 2011 -- Paramount Theatre, Seattle, WA

“Are you going to see Merce?” is the colloquial expression we all have used when checking in with each other to see if we were attending performances of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. I was asked this again just the other day by one of his nieces and am happy to report that, yes, I was able to go to “his” last show in Seattle as the MCDC winds down its national tour during its last year.

Culturally and historically, we have tended to think, particularly in modern dance circles, of a personality associated with companies – “Did you see Martha’s last season?” “What did you think of Trisha’s latest work?” We don’t think of ballet companies in this manner for the most part, except for the few cases where the repertory is exclusively and predominantly the work of one individual. This phrasing also suggests collegial affection and implied support --dare I even say a kind of familial love not found elsewhere. Hence, we commonly address each other (and each other's works) by first name in this profession.

Thus, “Are you going to see Merce?” brings up and recalls memories and feelings of first-hand experiences but also those inferred and much-storied. My personal first was his [MCDC] residency at Cornish College in 1977 where many of us got to work and take classes with and next to Merce himself and his Company – all of whom I found to amazing dancers and artists. During this residency too, one dance was premiered at the University of Washington’s Meany Hall. Adding to the mix were two performances of the music of John Cage – a voice recital by the renowned and very talented singer Marni Nixon and the other a “performance” of music scored for car radios, conducted in the Cornish College’s parking lots by its then-President, Melvin Strauss, both attended by Cage himself. The aleatoric nature of his work was made even more so by the fact that the score was written with New York radio station frequencies in mind, so tuning cues to certain places resulted in either tacet sounds or the unexpected. Each car had two occupants – one to tune, and the other to watch the conductor I suppose.

There is also the belief that – so paraphrase Doris Humphrey's comment that “All dances are too long,” – that all dances are autobiographical. To see Merce’s work is to see the artist and get to know him.

The second is getting to know his peer Nelle Fisher [they had been in the Martha Graham Dance Company at the same time] who reported to me the wonderful story of how she had not seen his work for some time, and how, when she was working in the Netherlands, Merce’s company came through on tour, she saw them, went backstage to greet Merce and said to him, “Merce, I don’t get it!” and he responded, “Nelle, there’s nothing to get!” In other words, his work had evolved and matured to his vision of pure dance – movement only with not even a hint a narrative or message.

This aspect of his work was no more in evidence than in the last piece, the appropriately-named “Split Sides” from 2003, where prior to its performance, rolls of a die determined which part of the dance was going to be done first – B, which set of costumes used first – “Colored,” and which music and which set design would go with each segment. The dancers were seated on stage as these selections were cast, looking bemused, who then left to change as soon as the costume choice was known. This process was presided over by MCDC’s official Archivist, the author David Vaughan [well-known for his biography of British choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton].

The oldest of the works presented the night I attended, “Rainforest,” dates from 1968 and is one that I’ve enjoyed before, and which features décor by Andy Warhol – called ‘Silver Clouds’ but which really look like inflated Mylar pillows [which had a life of their own] and music by David Tudor. The sound score seemed to have jungle animal sounds embedded in it, although synthesized – elephants plus myriad critter sounds, hootings and cawings.

“Duets,” the opening work was just that with couples making dance phrases, some brief, some longer, and then scooting off, concluding with all of the couples onstage, making a tableaux.

Another hallmark of an MCDC show is always, it would seem, that a small portion of the audience walks out. Perhaps we have come a long way, baby, and perhaps it’s that we all knew to be respectful and stay to the end, so it was unusual that this time, I didn’t observe anyone standing up and making their own statement by leaving. I have always attributed this behavior to Merce’s work as being so far in advance of anything else – very avant garde, which included some sound scores that were hard to take. Yet, with the advances in movie and computer technical wizardry, Merce’s work, while still appearing striking, unique, and fun, no longer impresses me as being on the edge.

As always, I was greatly impressed by the technical and athletic demands of the choreography throughout – from lots of sauté to controlled balances and quirky shifts of weight. Cunningham utilizes a fairly conservative repertoire of ballet steps and positions – fifth position, tendus, rounded arms high and low with what appear to be favorite steps and sequences that may be found in all three works: pas de bourée over, chassé to second position, strong passepieds à la seconde. What makes it modern dance, however ,is the bare feet, the use of the torso [contractions, for example] and how he, seemingly, puts allegro steps next to and into an adage movement or just when you think the pattern is going one place, it abruptly shifts and takes off somewhere else.

I was happy to see another former Cornish student, Marcie Munnerlyn, on the roster of company dancers. Until very recently, Cornish was represented by dancer Holly Farmer and Munnerlyn is carrying the tradition. In many ways, Cornish planted the seed for Merce, and it seemed having this dancer, while not perhaps bringing it full-circle, does never the less, pay tribute to Merce’s Northwest roots.

With some of the best dancing to be found anywhere – certainly for the modern dance, it was a very enjoyable evening, somewhat bittersweet with the knowledge that seeing an MCDC performance will never happen again. Not with his dancers within the setting and context of his company and his overall guiding vision. Future performances of Merce’s work will be licensed, so there is hope that his deep legacy will continue to be enjoyed by future generations.

Thank you, Merce, for allowing us to see you.

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