The end of an era began two years ago, when Merce Cunningham passed away. After an intense period of (ongoing) mourning by the dance world and the world at large, plans were unveiled by the company for the ominously titled Legacy Tour, which is in its final stages, after which the company will disband. The third-to-last New York phase took place last weekend as part of Lincoln Center Festival. (It will appear in BAM’s Next Wave Festival in December with three programs, and then leading up to New Year’s Eve at the Park Avenue Armory. Then, kaput.) But meanwhile, at the Guggenheim a few days prior to “Merce Fair,” MCDC alumnus Jonah Bokaer was quietly adding to his own oeuvre (and, in a sense, to Merce’s) with a polished, solid work, On Vanishing.
Morning, afternoon, and evening sessions of Merce Fair took place at the Rose Theater and in the sundry rooms attached to it. Headlining were mainstage performances of Duets (1980) and Squaregame (1976), plus Inventions, strongly danced by the RUGs (Repertory Group, and best acronym ever). In the aerie of the Allen Room, simultaneously glass-walled and miraculously sound-proofed from street noise (and eternally reminiscent of the short-lived Ian McShane series, Kings), a musical ensemble played various scores produced for the company or by its composers, including John Cage and Takehisa Kosugi. Lectures, films, archival exhibits, dance participations, and “merch” were also on tap, plus an installation of Warhol’s mylar balloons (the set of Rainforest) in the usually awful atrium space, where kids and cane-wielding elders gleefully batted the inflatables.
It was indeed a celebration of the late choreographer. At the same time, when the company takes its bows to voluminous applause, it has to be wondering how much of it they earned, and how much of it is indebted to Merce’s imminent phantom legacy. Of course, the dancers remain among the finest around, unshakably balanced, with strong feet like paws, so assured and relaxed as to smile on a whim at each other. Of particular note was John Hinrichs, who has been with the company for two years and performed the featured role in Squaregame—dancing alone, curious and regal; with a partner, devotedly obsessed enough to evoke a timeless romantic story. His performance alone, and its impending absence, was enough to make my heart catch.
Jonah Bokaer set his piece—a Guggenheim commission to Cage, played live—in the context of a rotunda installation by artist Lee Ufan, whose work is featured at the museum through September 28. It seemed the perfect setting for this choreographer’s work, which chafes just a little in a proscenium theater, and, with its organic egg-shaped curves and mineral-slab planes, fares well outdoors or in public spaces. Ufan’s gorgeous installation featured boulders next to a pair of standing panels, which Bokaer used as offstage for most of us gathered in the fountain’s and ramp’s nooks. Several large sheets of paper were activated as the five dancers took turns doing planks on them, or scrunching them up to great sonic effect. Gravity is always prominent in Bokaer’s work, as it lures limbs to fall brashly to the ground, or beckons the torso ever lower in deep, brave lunges. On that evening, it felt resolutely like the latest episode in the canon of formal modernism that emanates from the Guggenheim’s spiral like a wellspring… an evergreen source in the face of the dissipation of the torchbearers of one of modernism’s great inventors.