Unique Cunningham bids D.C. an unsettling farewell

December 4, 2011

It felt like the end of a point of view. But if you bit your lip and got through the last Washington performances of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater this weekend, there were a great many pleasures on view to keep your mind off the unsettling finality of it all.

Cunningham fans are in new territory here, so forgive us if we get a little sentimental about the coming self-destruction of the once-blazing force that rejected sentiment, artifice, ego — and while we’re at it, also rejected downstage or upstage or musical conformity. Or conventional treatment of much at all.

The company that Cunningham founded in 1953 is making its last stops on its Legacy Tour, which will lead to its send-off into history on Dec. 31 in New York. The curtain will lower on the use of chance principles, on tossing dice to make choices about steps and dancers and sequences, on the absence of a grand finale or a focal point, on choreography by computer and other idiosyncrasies of Cunningham’s art, which no other choreographer is incorporating with anywhere near Cunningham’s devotion.

Think of the late Merce Cunningham — he died in 2009 — as a kind of dance libertarian. He broke open the governing laws of dance. And so ends a movement that allied itself with other freethinkers in the avant-garde, with John Cage — Cunningham’s musical adviser and life partner — David Tudor, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Willem de Kooning and on and on. Today, you can walk into New York’s Museum of Modern Art and see a major de Kooning retrospective. There is no such repository for Cunningham’s revolution. This is the tragedy and poetry of dance.

But enough solemnity. Friday’s performance, anyway, was more about poetry and comedy. And even warmth. On the bill were two works from the 1970s, “Squaregame” (1976) and “Sounddance” (1975), and one of Cunningham’s earliest, “Antic Meet” (1958). I, for one, was glad that my final dip into Cunningham waters was with works such as these that were not part of his later experiments with computer animation, which could produce ungainly combinations more quirky than interesting.

“Antic Meet” is a circus of the absurd. Daniel Madoff, dancing the part that Cunningham created for himself, leapt lightly about with a chair strapped to his back, pursuing Jennifer Goggans like a lumpy firefly. Rauschenberg, famed for his sculptural “combines” of everyday objects, created the decor. Madoff, with his chair, brought to mind a human combine. Women cavorted in puffy tent-dresses; later, dancers appeared all in black, with hoops sewn into their tops so the hems stood out, bell-like, from their bodies. Downtown clowns.

Madoff never had it easy; he eventually shed the chair but gained a sweater with four sleeves and no neck opening. The parody of Martha Graham and her agonies inside stretchy knits was clear, but the sense of dueling with calamity reached back to the comedy of Chaplin, Keaton and beyond.

“Virtuosity without ego” is how Meg Harper, a Cunningham dancer in the late 1960s, described the company’s stage presence to me in a recent interview. That was absolutely true in this program, and it was what made “Antic Meet” so funny — the dancers were entirely deadpan. Similarly, in “Squaregame” and “Sounddance,” that focused, inner-directed virtuosity magnified the sense of heroism. Maybe that’s a bit of sentimentality creeping in again, but I found myself doing frequent double takes at the physical feats they so blandly tossed off. In the central Cunningham role in “Squaregame,” Rashaun Mitchell never wavered in his flights across the stage, more in the air than on his feet, though on his feet he was just as sure and light. The dancers moved as if suspended in gelatin; buoyancy contrasted with weightedness, and this tension was echoed in the plump but pillow-light duffel bags they leaned against or tossed around.

“Sounddance” was the perfect closer, with the dancers spinning onstage one by one from an opening in a marvelous array of golden curtains, then swirling through a fury of duets and chain reactions and vanishing through the same hole. What pain as the stage grew more and more empty, and those gods and goddesses in their very ’70s turtlenecks and tights weren’t coming back out! (Some in the audience may have also experienced pain from the David Tudor electronic score, but trust me, it was booming at a much more kindly volume than usual.)

Oh no, there goes one more . . . and another . . . and finally Robert Swinston, a veteran company member who was dancing in the Cunningham role of engine and overseer of all, spiraled through in a final ecstatic solo, and darted into the void.

In the beginning was an art form hitting a dead end. Cunningham came along and opened up new avenues. And then, suddenly, gone.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, black boxes, folding chairs and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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