Merce Cunningham centenary, 4/16/19
I went to a performance at BAM on 4/16/19, *Night of 100 Solos: A Centenary Event.* It was what would have been the 100th birthday of modern dance giant Merce Cunningham. His foundation scheduled three performances for that evening, in London, New York, and Los Angeles, each of them with 25 dancers doing 100 solos.
I had seen the Cunningham group in Madison many years ago and they knocked me out, it was an experience unlike any I had had before. He developed an elaborate language of movement and then assembled the words in that language to form sentences and paragraphs, often using chance operations like the I Ching. The element of his work that I found most fascinating was that the music in a piece is most often something the dancers have not heard before. They rehearse without music and then add the music in performance.
The theater had a festive air, a celebratory vibe and the feeling that we were going to witness something very special. I read the program notes for a while and then decided it would be more fun to watch the audience. The audience was mostly sexy, funky people over 50. My brother Howard would have fit right in.
The dances were primarily staged by Patricia Lent, a former member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. The 25 dancers generally did their solos oblivious to the other dancers onstage. There were nearly always two or more dancers onstage, at a few isolated moments there was just one. I don't think the stage was ever empty.
The company was unusually varied: my guess is the age range was from the 20s into the 50 (possibly deep into the 50s), all over the map in terms of race and ethnicity, tall and short and in between, and many different body types, though not an ounce of flab anywhere on that stage!
A few things that struck me: the dancers had a uniformly neutral facial expression. That really put the focus on the body. And they were so expressive in their stillness. I wondered about using the word "beautiful" rather than "expressive," but it really did seem like they were expressing something.
The piece started with two dancers, Peiju Chien-Pott and Keith Sabado. Sabado had a wonderful quirky quality, he had a particular sort of energy. Chien-Pott was one of my favorite dancers, she had incredible precision and elegance in her movement. I wish I had a photo of her. There was a moment when she was standing on one foot and she bent down with her wrists joined and her hands splayed, and placement of the leg behind her two hands, it was in absolutely perfect symmetry, on a clock face they would be 8, 6, and 4. I might be overstating this, but that tiny moment was one of the most stunning and glorious things I've ever seen onstage. It was in the first five minutes of the show, so it really set the bar very high.
My very favorite dancer was Reid Bartelme, he was tall and lanky, one of the older dancers. This photo shows him on the left, Sara Mearns on the right (more about her later), and David Norsworthy in the back:
Bartelme had a moment when he was walking along an imaginary tightrope, with one hand raised up and the other low, and the line from one hand to the other was stunning. The lower arm undulated slightly. He and his partner Harriet Jung also did the extraordinary costumes. The set design, a glacially evolving video projection, was by Pat Steir. It was the perfect visual complement to the dancing.
The music director was John King, who had a crackerjack team of musicians with him in the pit. As is often the case with music that uses a strong electronic element, it was difficult to understand what you were hearing. Was it pre-recorded, or being played live, or live with some kind of electronic processing? It was dazzling music, generally mellow in its mood, though sometimes rather loud.
There were a few moments where the dancers interacted with each other: in one sequence with a trio of women, one woman held her hand out and another woman laid her head in that hand. This happened for all three women in that grouping, it was sweet and tender. Eleanor Hullihan came onstage holding a long, slim piece of fabric in the same striking peach color as her costume. She tied that piece of fabric around her head to make a headband. Here she is with Joshua Tuason:
She took it off and dropped it to the floor when she left the stage. It was picked up by one of the other dancers, a darling moment of humor in the piece.
Jason Collins came onstage with about 20 tin cylinders strapped to his waist and legs.
They made a lot of noise, it was an interesting bit of variety in the piece. At one point four women came onstage and did a similar hopping movement, that was a surprising bit of group interaction.
Chalvar Monteiro (on the left in the photo below) danced with great power. And Sara Mearns (on the right) had breathtaking purity, a clean, gorgeous line. I didn't realize it at the time, but a friend here at work told me that one of her favorite New York City Ballet dancers was in the performance, and that was her. Mearns was also the title character in *I Married An Angel,* which I saw at City Center in March.
One of the most impactful moments of the performance was about two thirds of the way through - - all 25 dancers were onstage and they posed in a particular way and they each held that pose.
The lights changed slightly and they moved into another pose, which they held. And then a third. It was, like so much else in the performance, utterly fascinating and captivating.
The entire evening had that extra something, it felt truly like a once-in-a-lifetime Event (Cunningham spells that word with a capital E in this context). I feel so lucky to have been there.
[Photographs by Stephanie Berger, courtesy of the BAM Press Office.]