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Streb and Merce Cunningham Dance Co. End Things with a Bang at The Armory

Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Park Avenue Armory "Events." Photo by Anna Finke, courtesy Cunningham Dance Foundation.

Two recent end-of-2011 dance events at the Park Avenue Armory underscored the venue’s potential for artistic discourse on a grand scale—Elizabeth Streb’s Kiss the Air! and Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s final Events leading up to New Year’s Eve. Both performances felt carnivalesque; Kiss the Air! truly like a three-ring circus, complete with a barking ringmaster. The dancers’ (or “action engineers”) entrances set the bar high, literally, as each, hanging from a t-bar strung from a descending cable, swooped down from a tower, slamming at high speed, full-force, into a padded pillar.

As the show unfolded, they worked through the installations of equipment scattered throughout the vast drill hall. Streb’s apparatus (credited to her and Hudson Scenic) are often sculptures in and of themselves, such as one that is essentially a rotating ladder from which the dancers hung, balanced, in pairs or groups, spinning faster and faster. Springboards propelled with compressed air made the dancers graceful projectiles before falling to earth. (Obviously landings are a key, but even done properly, you have to wonder about repeated impacts.) And in an overly long section, they dove off of a multi-tiered Hollywood Squares-like structure, splatting on mats in formation. The raucous finale involved bungee harnessed dancers, a shallow pool, and much juvenile splashing of the audience, but not before cannonballs were dropped onto concrete blocks (in plexiglass sleeves), shattering into shards and dust just inches from the audience, apparently for the shock value. Several live and recorded videos were projected onto huge screens, and swivelling lights enhanced the circus feel.

The Cunningham company’s farewell performances were Events, or medleys of sections from various dances, assembled by the company’s director of choreography, Robert Swinston. Musicians were placed around the hall, where Daniel Arsham’s white cluster set pieces hung high. Like Kiss the Air!, the performance was viscerally emotional, but it was artistically a far cry from Streb, whose achievements test human limits while going for shock and awe. Actually, I suppose that would apply as well to Merce’s choreography, which—in the waning moments of its zenith, as performed by dancers specializing in it, and watched through the rose-tinted lens of the impending true end—has never felt more virtuosic and heroic.

The Armory Event was an up-close view of the effortful ease of the style, of the underlying tension within the body that is essential to the great dynamism expressed in Cunningham’s work, giving it so much internal life. Each dancer was brilliant in unique ways. Never again this, final that—we’ve been hearing it for a long time now, so its fulmination was mercifully dissipated enough to be able to see the dance itself with clarity, particularly in the wake of BAM’s three dense programs (video clips here). Still, I’m very sad.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.

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