April 16, 2019
New York City
New York City Ballet principal dancer Sara Mearns hovers in a side lunge. Her left leg is straight as a knife, and her calf slopes towards the ground like a ripe mango. She’s so clearly a ballerina—she has dropped into this position from one where she stands on her left leg, her right extended towards the heavens—but this pose looks like a classical step tipped on its side, with bare feet instead of pointe shoes. That’s because it’s a Merce Cunningham move, stripped of prescribed meaning, narrative, and emotion. It’s pure physicality, and it’s a joy to see a classically trained dancer test it out.
On April 16, the Merce Cunningham Trust celebrated its founder’s centennial with a Night of 100 Solos. For the production, they collaborated with three institutions—the Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City, and UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles—75 dancers, and nearly half of the total alumni of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC). The Trust made a pointed choice to feature dancers—like Mearns, on the BAM stage—who had never worked with or even met Cunningham before he passed away in 2009 at the age of 90. Their performances are worth analyzing on a technical level; they also offer a chance to unpack Cunningham’s philosophy of dance.
Starting in 1939, Cunningham rose to prominence as a soloist in the Martha Graham Dance Company; in 1945, he left to develop his own style of movement. The choreographer shunned explicit narratives and emotional arcs; in 1953, he started using chance to build his sequences. By deferring to coin tosses, the I Ching, and later, the choreographic software Lifeforms, he could access endless permutations. “Merce’s combinations were very difficult, much harder” than Graham’s, recalled performer and choreographer Paul Taylor, who danced in both companies.1 “His rhythms were quite complex—the counts were like a telephone book.”
In order to further abstract his work, Cunningham decoupled movement and music. As he recalled, in 1970, of his collaborations with the composer and artist John Cage, “When we began to work together (these were during the solo program days), he would compose the music quite separately from the dance, although in those early dances, there were structure points in the music that related to the dance. Now even that has vanished. We start as though to take off from the earth and then go to the moon!”2 The Night of 100 Solos honored this methodology. Musicians, under the guidance of former MCDC collaborators, composed accompaniment. And visual artists provided three digital backdrops, which felt, at times, reminiscent of work by Cunningham collaborators like Robert Rauschenberg, Bruce Nauman, and Jasper Johns. These elements were developed in parallel, not conjunction. The dancers first heard their musical score during their performance, as they throttled towards the moon.
Over his more than six decades as a dancer and choreographer, Cunningham produced approximately 185 dances. “My work has always been in process,” he explained in his 1994 essay “Four Events That Have Led to Large Discoveries.”3 “Finishing a dance has left me with the idea, often slim in the beginning, for the next one.” Cunningham was discerning about restaging pieces, lest they lose their static energy. He often, though, stripped them for parts and built composite performances. The choreographer “approaches his older works the way a film editor approaches his daily rushes,” explained Roger Copeland.4 It’s as though he’s “cutting, assembling, and reassembling the fragments at will.” Cunningham called these patchwork projects Events. Between 1964 and his death, he created nearly 800 of them.
The Night of 100 Solos is the artist’s farthest-reaching Event yet. (And it is Cunningham’s Event. His absence is outsized only by his contributions to the evening: the choreography, the Trust, the occasion of his centennial.) The celebration featured 100 solos on each stage—300 discrete performances. Even with some duplicate solos from one stage to the next, it’s a staggering production. To better understand Cunningham’s technique, the twenty-five dancers in each city partnered with former company members. Rather than string together the solos one by one, these authorized stagers—veteran Cunningham dancers Patricia Lent (1984 - 1993) and Jean Freebury (1992 - 2003)—staggered them, leaving the dancers to move in a sort of fugue. This stage mapping is consistent with Cunningham’s company works: even in a piece like Scramble (1967), set for a company of eight and later eleven dancers, the performers overlap on stage but rarely—if ever—move in sync.
For the Night of 100 Solos, these stagers chose sequences that suited each dancer’s strengths. On the BAM stage, Alvin Ailey company member Chalvar Monteiro performed solos that had a roiling focus and intensity; fellow Ailey dancer Jacquelin Harris took on pieces that were steady and grounded. Christian Nassar Allen’s sequences foregrounded his elegance and strength with playful head dips, hip swivels, and steps that pivot and bow. Kyle Abraham—a choreographic force in the contemporary dance scene—holds focus in one of his segments with a prolonged lift of his right leg, a bend at his knee, and a curling of his arms in a circle. He’s meditative and mature, a beacon in this dispersed group. Vicky Shick and Joshua Tuason perform two solos that make for a tender, encouraging duet. In a trim, sprightly solo, Angela Falk skips ahead, then hops backwards, like a recording on playback. Lindsey Jones, who has spent the last few years dancing restaged Cunningham works, showed her acumen throughout the Night of 100 Solos in a series of towering, angular sequences that were as light-footed as they were sweeping.
It was a particularly inspired move to include Martha Graham principal dancer Peiju Chien-Pott in the centennial celebration. For 60 years, Cunningham and Graham’s companies operated on markedly different assumptions about what modern dance should be. But Chien-Pott’s set of skills—she leads with her hips and knows just how to pivot her torso—suit Cunningham’s steps as well as they suit Graham’s. Whether that says more about Chien-Pott’s talent or about Graham’s enduring influence on Cunningham is up for debate. But there are hints of Graham in other solos, too, like an accelerated, taut Errand Into The Maze zig-zag. In this way, the Night of 100 Solos isn’t just a collage of Cunningham’s work, it’s also a chance to track his influences. There’s more Graham in Cunningham than one might think.
“We all move differently, in accordance with our physical proportions as well as our temperaments,” Cunningham once said. “It is this that interests me. Not the sameness of one person to another, but the difference, not a corps de ballet, but a group of individuals acting together.”5 Cunningham knew that his company members had distinct strength, flexibility, and stamina; part of the puzzle of choreographing a new piece was figuring out who best could perform it. Together, the Night of 100 Solos dancers comprised an ideal “group of individuals acting together.”
Some of the dancers for the Night of 100 Solos may never perform together again. Some belong to the same companies. Others are frequent collaborators. Jones and Maggie Cloud, also on stage at BAM, have both, for instance, danced for Pam Tanowitz, who performed on the UCLA stage. Tanowitz is notable for taking a cue from Cunningham in her own work. This year, she debuted Untitled (Souvenir), an Event-like piece for the Martha Graham Dance Company, in which she spliced together Graham’s choreography with her own, repurposed the company's Isamu Noguchi set pieces, and encouraged the fastidious Martha Graham dancers to follow their impulses on stage—to linger a beat longer than they think they should or embrace a mistake.
Cunningham didn’t create choreography to signal an emotion or tell a story. He created movement, and this movement had the capacity to be meaningful. There’s no way to watch the Night of 100 Solos, though, without acknowledging its intended significance. It’s rousing to watch these 75 performers—whose ages, company affiliations, training, and performance styles vary—partake in a momentous evening. Throughout the 90 minutes at each venue, they attempt to hold up a titan’s legacy. That’s just as Cunningham hoped: the more people involved in his legacy plan, the greater chance it has of surviving.
It’s intentional, then, that though MCDC alumni were on hand for the Night of 100 Solos, they were not on stage. Cunningham planned for his company members to take their final bow two years after his death, following one year of touring and a second year performing in New York. He also left his Trust with the material remains of his career, including recordings, writings, and other documents associated with this prolific body of work. The Trust has dutifully archived these materials online, including the Night of 100 Solos, which broadcast on a live stream and is available for playback on Vimeo through July. (Graham, in contrast, was wary of filming even her rehearsals, lest a viewer mistake them for the real thing. “Graham disliked documentation,” wrote Marian Horosko in Martha Graham: The Evolution of Her Dance Theory.6)
Still, some of the centennial performances feel like more authentic tributes to Cunningham than others. The Merce Cunningham Celebration at the Joyce Theater, for instance, featured three ballet companies performing iconic works from the Cunningham repertoire: Ballet West performed “Summerspace” (1958), Compagnie CNDC-Angers/Robert Swinston, “Suite for Five” (1958), and The Washington Ballet, “Duets” (1980). These performances, like the Night of 100 Solos, featured authorized stagers. The bill, though, was a restaging, not an Event; it lacked the sense of surprise intrinsic to Cunningham’s style.
An Event, an unpredictable assemblage from Cunningham’s archive: that’s the type of program that will sustain his legacy. At the Night of 100 Solos, audiences were able to witness a medley of the choreographer’s most iconic sequences and understated transitions. They delighted in Cunningham’s on-stage bike ride from “Variations V” (1965) even though Cunningham was not on hand to steer it. (Keith Sabado did the honors at BAM.) Cunningham’s archive is not a replacement, of course: nobody will dance the artist’s solos or run a rehearsal or inspire a generation quite like he did. But they will add new variables to the equation. In “Four Events That Have Led to Large Discoveries,” Cunningham acknowledged the importance of possibility. “I do not think of each dance as an object,” he concluded, “rather a short stop on the way.”7