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March 2011

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Juilliard Dance

Published: March 29, 2011
Category: review

Counting the Days of Merce's Legacy Tour

By Rachel Straus

NEW YORK — Drawing closer are the final performances of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. With the death of its founding choreographer in July 2009, the 15-member ensemble and a roster of avant-garde composer-musicians have been crisscrossing the globe on a two-year Legacy Tour to enthralled audiences. Only 276 days are left, and a lot of us are counting.

For last week’s third-to-last New York appearances (Mar 22-27), the company sold out the Joyce Theater with “CRWDSPCR” (1993), and revivals of “Quartet” (1982) and “Antic Meet” (1958), an uncharacteristically comedic dance that hasn’t been seen in New York since 1969.

Cunningham’s influences are known to have been Abstract Expressionism and the Color Field movements, but his works also possess a wide emotional palette, something this program (viewed March 23), unfolding in reverse chronology, made acutely apparent. In his choice of music, the choreographer was never drawn to foot-tapping ditties or searing ballads that make the eyes well up. Nor are his steps obviously emotive or highly gestural (unless as a joke); rather, it is the way he has his dancers interrelate that fires the imagination and creates miniature stories. Their encounters seem accidental, as if by chance, like two strangers locking eyes and smiling at each other on the street. The ultimate power of these moments is that they come and then go — without fanfare or further development. They feel more abstract than representational. That is their mystery.

“CRWDSPCR” (pronounced “Crowd Spacer” or “Crowds Pacer”) is one of the first (of many) dances Cunningham devised through the computer program LifeForms™. He would make movement on three-dimensional figures and then transpose it to his dancers. The result lends, in this case, a steely quality, but one that is mediated by a series of hushed solos. As John King’s electric guitar whirrs furiously in “blues ’99,” 12 dancers bound through space, creating a sense of urban efficiency—like rush hour at Times Square. A single, meditative solo by Emma Desjardins brings the frenzy to a halt; as she looks behind her, she could be looking back to a time before dances could evolve through computer generation.

Many know “Antic Meet” through a famous photograph by Robert Rutledge, which shows Merce Cunningham with a chair strapped to his backside. Like Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” satirizing art by depicting a urinal as a watery cascade, Cunningham’s “Meet” satirizes theater’s use of scenery and props by literally strapping them on to the real thing. The reigning tone is absurdity. In Cunningham’s role, Daniel Madoff is like Charlie Chaplin, pulling a bouquet of fake flowers out of his sleeve. He executes flying pushups with Dylan Crossman like a circus performer. He sports sunglasses and wears that chair like a businessman wearing a pair of suspenders. In the finale, Robert Rauschenberg’s costumes transform the female quartet into Martha Graham dancers. With flexed kicking feet, they practically push Madoff off the stage. Cunningham began his career with Graham. In “Antic” he playfully demonstrates that he thought her emotional world was not only heavy handed, but heaved footed.

Like “CRWDSPCR,” “Quartet” addresses issues of past and present. Robert Swinston, the company’s director of choreography and senior-most member, performed the role Cunningham created for himself. He is the observer, the older person whose limbs are failing, occasionally mimicking the action of the playful foursome. He is the choreographer, the outsider, who wants to be part of his dancing gang, whose bodies swoop easily through space. When the quartet rests, the other man, Brandon Collwes, wraps his arms around the three women. Swinston looks at them with longing.

But David Tudor’s pounding, grinding electronic landscape, “Sextet for Seven,” leaves little room for feelings of loss. That arrives when Swinston lopes off the stage, a fitting foreshadow of the Cunningham Company’s approaching disappearance from world stages.


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