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Juilliard Dance

Published: December 27, 2011
Category: profile

The End of Modern Dance?

By Rachel Straus

NEW YORK — Before Merce Cunningham died at age 90 in July 2009, he had decided that his company would die with him, preceded by a two-year world tour. And so, after the grand finale performances Dec. 29-31 at the Park Avenue Armory, the company will be snuffed out. Its demise carries with it a huge chunk of the American modern dance tradition. Besides Paul Taylor and Trisha Brown, there are no U.S. modern dance troupes whose leader is still alive, whose company still tours consistently and whose choreography stems from a technique developed by its founder.

The reason is simple: American modern dance makers—who by virtue of being modernist shirk the previous generation’s approaches—no longer have the resources to fully realize their ideas. To make a rich, individualized movement style that a group of dancers can perform takes an enormous amount of time and human capital. It takes subsidization. Four decades ago, through the NEA, as well as corporations and foundations, Cunningham was getting enough support to forge his radical technique. New generations of modern dance makers working in America haven’t been blessed with such beneficence.

With Senator Jesse Helms’s infamous 1989 attack on the NEA, dance subsidization dropped precipitously. If modern dance can’t reflect family values, help little Johnnie’s self-confidence, make a profit, or build a city’s tour-destination profile, why bother with it, say naysayers. But Merce Cunningham, who came to critical acclaim during the 1970s U.S. dance boom, demonstrated that modern dance performs a real duty. It distills cultural moments. It moves with and is reflective of the times. Great modern dance is like a Rorschach test, with dancing bodies as the inkblot. The work’s meaning varies from viewer to viewer. The experience isn’t didactic, dogmatic or propagandist. Modern-dance watching facilitates the development of an open, imaginative mind — a trait not be sniffed at.

Cunningham never pandered to public tastes. He held fast to twin philosophies: Dance only exists in the moment; dance is innately expressive (and thus not a subgenre of music or theater). Before his radical pre-death decision became known, many assumed his choreographic assistant Robert Swinston would be entrusted to carry the mantle. Instead Swinston and fellow company veteran Patricia Lent are tasked to set, or oversee the staging of, Cunningham’s dances on educational and professional entities deemed capable of executing his dastardly difficult choreography. It’s hard to imagine that any group will do Cunningham’s work justice. It requires more than mastering steps.

Cunningham’s language is as distinct as ballet’s. Each part of the body articulates itself in any opposing direction to another part of the body. In a typical movement phrase, the arms, legs and torso move independently from each other. Cunningham never made story ballets or dances about the big themes (love and death, group vs. the individual, etc.). Nonetheless, his dancers’ quixotic perambulations bring to mind recognizable moments of life. Asked once if his work was abstract, he famously said that it’s impossible for a human to represent an abstraction. Yet because Cunningham’s dancers are stripped of traditional theatrical appurtenances like gendered costuming and minor and major roles (they work mostly in unitards or leotards), they seem to exist in a philosophical rather than a representational dimension. The works investigate space and time instead of a places and events. Physically, their task is to make a Rubik’s cube of steps look beautiful instead of impossible.

Since the company’s founding in 1953, it has been common for Cunningham’s dancers to show their struggle. But that was before this Legacy Tour. With their breakneck performing schedule, they have developed an unprecedented level of virtuosity in the Cunningham technique as witnessed Dec. 10 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In “Split Sides” (1998), a trio of female dancers balanced on one leg in relevé (the toes of their feet). In absolute unison, each woman moved her free leg in and out like a bow and arrow and bent her upper body sideways over her moving leg. It was freakishly virtuosic and in my 30 years of watching dance, I’ve never seen anything like it. In the past, critics remarked on the dancers’ painfully concentrated faces. No more. The last crop of Cunningham dancers emote a brilliant calm.

Also on the program were “Pond Way” (1983) and “Rainforest” (1968). Each work highlights Cunningham’s unconventional approach to collaboration: the composer, set designer and choreographer all work independently. Sound, set, costumes and lighting coalesce toward the end of the working process, and sometimes as late as the premiere. The dancers learn their steps in silence. The rhythms they create have almost nothing to do with the music the audience hears.

Cunningham’s dances often sprang from his own, math-geek wish to solve a problem. He would ask: How many ways can the body fall? What are the physical components of a pond? The latter was answered in “Pond Way” in which 13 dancers behaved like aquatic forms of life. Each balanced on one leg with the delicacy of a water fern. Then a group resembling frogs or diving fish broke the fragile mood. When Andrea Weber crossed the stage and paused in response to a touch from five different men, who alternately emerge and recede like bubbles at the water’s surface, the effect was courtly. Miller’s crossing, however, could also be interpreted as natural phenomenon, like a leaf moving across a rock-strewn stream.

“Pond Way,” like several Cunningham dances, premiered in Paris. Only after the Parisians (and British) began to hail the avant-garde dance maker in the late 1960s did the American critical community begin to take Cunningham seriously. Like Isadora Duncan and Josephine Baker before him, Cunningham was discovered in Europe.

Unlike Balanchine, Cunningham didn’t use lauded musical compositions. John Cage, his life partner and foremost artistic influence, encouraged him to commission experimental composers, like David Tudor, Takehisa Kosugi, Christian Wolff and John King. You can’t hum along to these multi-media compositions. In “Rainforest,” King and Kosugi’s screeching soundscape brings to mind a bunch of aliens who have taken over a CB radio channel. The space theme is also realized through Andy Warhol’s helium-filled silver pillows, which float about the stage like living creatures. “Rainforest” was made during the U.S.-Soviet Space Race, reflected in the high-intensity dancing and the competition between two male performers.

“Split Sides” uses Cunningham’s unconventional compositional device called chance procedure, where the phrases can be performed in different sequences and patterns and by different dancers. What determines the order? In this case, it was the roll of the dice, as executed onstage by David Vaughan, the company’s archivist. Even and odd numbers determined the pairing of the elements, which consisted of two sets of designs, costumes, scores and choreography. On stage left, the dancers sat in practice clothes, ready to don and dance what the dice willed. Vaughan’s introductory stunt was educational, but it also had the effect of making Cunningham’s process seem like a lark instead of a way to free his muse from the limitations of intuition and habit.

If the MCDC performance felt like a wake, it highlighted how brilliant Cunningham’s dancers have become. Their efforts crystallized how modern dance pushes the boundaries of physical experimentation within an artistic framework. Silas Riener’s “Split Sides” solo produced shrieks of approval. It expressed Cunningham’s movement philosophy, which asks dancers to make peace with uncertainty and to take enormous physical risks for no other reason than art.

Copyright © 2011, Musical America

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