Great artists generate devoted communities. On line waiting for the elevators to Lincoln Center's Rose Theater in July, former dancers with the Cunningham Company were overheard comparing notes on who and what they’d seen earlier in the day - so and so from one era, that one from a later time.
Rather than casting many glances back, my experience of the evening segment of the day-long Merce Fair was about looking and hearing anew. Perhaps knowing that there will be no more Cunningham choreography, one is automatically drawn deeper into what there is, and that opens the mind.
It was on film that I first heard Merce explain his understanding of how music, dance and decor functioned for him in contemporary performance. As with a streetscape where one witnesses a bird in flight while hearing the scream of a firetruck, the elements cohere through their simultaneity and our processing. Whatever we make of the interrelationship is what we make of it. So it was ideal to have the music associated with Merce’s work performed in the Allen Theater with a massive window wall gazing out on a vibrant slice of Central Park South.
And the revelations in that music! As a very young dancer I was put off by these male composers’ scratching and unlovely sonic contributions from the pit. Here, it became fascinating to hear one distinct sound at a time played on a succession of percussion instruments in Cage’s “One,”and spellbinding to try to parse Alvin Luciers’ score for piano and hovering theramin-like doppelganger. And magic - a man at a computer whooshing his hands mysteriously behind a laptop’s screen to produce whorling, dense and dramatic flights of sounds.
My sometime perception of “coldness” in the work was utterly dispelled in Duets and Squaregame, the dances offered by the company. How interesting that Robert Swinston, the company's Director of Choreography, chose to revisit works from one narrow band of time - late 1970’s and 1980 - that are structurally exquisite, and with less seeming randomness than many.
Squaregame takes place on a demarcated white square, dancers temporarily deposited at its far corners, watching in formal groups, then joining in unison ventures.
Rashaun Mitchell, at the work’s beginning and end displays a perplexingly deep sensuality. How can it be? While Merce’s clarity and exactitude are there in spades, so are a fleshy fluidity and thoughtfulness. Cunningham himself seemed to dance with the curiosity of someone to whom the dance was happening, as though he were the subject on which the experiment of this dance were being conducted. Mitchell dances as though the movement were his voice; his wobbly knees or big reaches, without any artifice or extraneous additions, conveying a physical vulnerability or spatial interest.
I’ve heard people say that Mitchell can “channel” Merce. What I see is the channeling of Merce’s authority, and one-pointedness. But how the movement sits on his more substantial frame is different altogether - more rounded, more tender.
Duets plays a trick of continuity. With its cascade of pairings performing distinct tasks, one all hyperdrive lockstep dashes, another a duet without touching, we wonder which of the many pairs might be carrying a through line. But the center continually shifts, as though a spotlight is scanning for the heart of the matter. All the pairs are the heart as we see at the end, when in a stunningly dense minute of finale, every duet mobilizes, pauses for a settled moment, before the density kicks back in and the lights switch out.
That black out ending, used in both works, serves as a reminder that a flow can be turned off, like a faucet. It’s turned off when our proverbial glass is quite satisfyingly full, but just before any hint of overflow.
Earlier, the Fair had animated multiple contiguous spaces with diverse events.The group of attendees learning Field Dances threw themselves into their task, delighted with the open-endedness, through Merce’s structure, of making their own choices. A girl - not more than 8 - flitted among the big folks, tipping sideways facing them, placing hands on their shoulders.
Passersby happened on the floating Mylar Warhol pillows, tossing them back skyward..
The Archive represented a carefully winnowed selection from a vast collection of books, papers and photographs. Handsome hanging panels with photos and text offered both a crash course in Merce and collaborators ,and new information for those already familiar.
The film illustrating the process of creating the “Dancer 1 2 3” drawings was screened alongside the drawings themselves. With Merce revisiting a Cagean concept twenty years after Cage himself worked with it, what’s fascinating is to see how he interacts with the dancers - how he offers refining instructions, how his seeing the results generates something new on the spot.
At the Merce Fair, we were given the fitting option of choreographing our own event, wandering in and out of film screenings, or music performances, or learning a dance, or reading, looking, conversing with friends, until finally enjoying a come-together moment watching the culminating performance. It was a party Merce would have thoroughly enjoyed.