Two titans of dance gone within a month. First Pina Bausch, and now Merce Cunningham at the age of 90. The effect of their deaths paralleled the nature of their work. Pina’s was surprising, traumatic, emotionally wrenching. Merce’s was, if not exactly expected, and just as sad, then logical—a final step into a dark pool after a long, slow wade.
Merce created a large body of work, a giant living organism that expanded and sometimes morphed into varying iterations, depending on place and time, as with the series of Events. His use of chance operations is well documented and became a kind of sideshow at high-profile performances such as Split Sides at BAM in 2003, with live music by Radiohead and Sigur Ros, in which Cunningham rolled dice in an onstage ritual to determine the musical order.
What was less serendipitous was his choreography—rigorous, academic, and technically very difficult. While he will always be known as a pioneer of the 20th century avant-garde, his technique could be as structured as ballet, and probably more challenging for most accomplished dancers because it is not a universal code the way ballet is. If you watch some of the recently-produced Mondays with Merce web series, you can see how tough the exercise combinations can be, even for company members. And make no mistake—they specialize in modern, but these dancers are among the world’s finest.
Merce celebrated his 90th birthday last April 16th at BAM, where his company was performing his new work, Nearly Ninety, with music by John Paul Jones, Takehisa Kosugi, and Sonic Youth, and a big set by Bennedetta Tagliabue. It was his company’s last opera house-scale, New York performance during his life, and it felt suitably ceremonious, with a birthday cake and a serenade by Audra McDonald.
As anticipated and popular as these performances at larger houses have been, his work is perhaps most richly received at smaller venues or non-traditional sites, like Dia:Beacon, which hosted a series of performances by MCDC in recent years, or the Tate Modern in London. The company performed Ocean at the Rose Theater in the 2005 Lincoln Center Festival; the quasi-spherical nature of the house made for an ideal setting to be submerged in the work. This weekend, the company will perform in Evening Stars, outdoors in Rockefeller Park, co-presented by The Joyce Theater and the River-to-River Festival, an occasion that will celebrate Merce’s work but no doubt be imbued with sadness.
A well-organized legacy plan put in place by a trust will assure that his legendary oeuvre is assured for history’s sake, but what can’t be quantified is how much his presence as a cultural bon vivant will be missed around the city. Up until recently, he would attend other company’s performances, supportive of ex-dancers and collaborators and as curious and spritely as ever. His studio, located in the bohemian utopia of Westbeth, serves as a hive of dance activity, a base for his school, and as a cozy performance venue for smaller groups. These activities will continue, but it simply won’t be the same without Merce’s mythic, yet very earthbound, presence.
Portrait of Merce Cunningham by Peggy Jarrell Kaplan, 1985.