End Days

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Park Avenue Armory Events. Jennifer Goggans, Dylan Crossman, and Jamie Scott. (Photo: Stephanie Berger)

ON THE LAST THREE NIGHTS OF 2011, I attended five of the final six performances of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Even a few dance journalists, from whom you might expect a degree of sympathy, suggested it was a bit eccentric to see so many.

To sign off on my own delusion, I’ll admit that my only nagging thought was, “Why did I not get tickets to all six?” (Several friends had.) I explained to skeptics that, with multidirectional dance going on three different stages simultaneously, there was just so much to see, and that I would have just been at home otherwise, so why not spend the extra ten bucks to catch, as one especially wired reporter put it, “the most significant event in dance history”?

But the truth was, I just couldn’t get over it being over.

Staged in a vast, 55,000-square-foot drill hall, the Park Avenue Armory Events, with their triumphant Battlestar Galactica lighting, cinematic sound design, and three-ring setup, were clearly designed to impress. That the dancing was actually elevated rather than reduced by all the superfluous gear is a testament both to the finessing of the individual elements and to the staggering capacity of the dancers. (My notes from the evenings read like an exhaustive taxonomy of the superlative form—“most,” “best,” “greatest,” “last.” To say the Event was “charged” is an understatement. This was Holy Communion at the final Mass.)

The three black Marley stages were raised to about chest height. You could watch from the floor or from above, standing on one of six eight-foot-tall “balcony” platforms that ringed the perimeter. At the appointed time, the lights would focus, trumpets would blare, and the dancers would enter single file straight into the heart of the crowd (1,500 people per show), onto the stages, and begin to dance.

There wasn’t a single unremarkable moment. Excerpts from fifty years of choreography were on display, all at once. Things stuck out, but largely that was serendipity; like the aleatory relation between music and dance, it often had to do with where one happened to be at any given time. (That’s what Cunningham was: serendipity versus rigor.) I remember each night watching Dylan Crossman, Jennifer Goggans, and Jamie Scott join arms for the elated off-kilter thumping from Rondo. I remember racing between Melissa Toogood’s ecstatic solo full of brutal twists and hyperextensions on the westernmost stage to catch Silas Riener entering the easternmost stage, running on, landing on one knee, leaning back (“like the light is just exploding from his chest” a friend said) to just hold.

Cunningham’s dancers are all the more memorable despite (because of?) the strictly nonnarrative, antiexpressive quality of the choreography. Andrea Weber beams when she dances, but she does not beam because she’s been instructed to smile, or even because the movement is particularly buoyant. She beams because . . . that’s how she dances. With Cunningham you see the dancer herself, denuded of theatrical affectation. The steps are inhabited, not imitated.

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Park Avenue Armory Events. Silas Riener and Andrea Weber, foreground. (Photo: Anna Finke)

Douglas Crimp had been thoughtful enough to make reservations for each of the three nights at Sel et Poivre, a French restaurant around the corner from the Armory. Every evening, after the 6:30 PM show, we would head there with a small, rotating coterie of the devoted and hash out what we’d seen before running back for the 9 PM.

During one dinner, a friend described his way of conveying the loss to his family over Christmas:

“Imagine if your favorite sports team were to suddenly just disappear,” he said. “Teams are supposed to last forever, right?”

“But it’s more than that,” I argued. “It’s as though a whole sport disappeared. It’s like, suddenly, baseball’s gone.”

“I hope you like basketball.”

In times of loss we resort to analogy, some metaphor we could stick there to put some sense to what’s happening. Another friend stopped me at the Armory: “Is there anything in the history of visual art that’s like what’s just happened?” No. Maybe? It’s as though they burned down a museum, a big one, like the Whitney. And we all turned out to celebrate.

Dance is all about death and dying. Our heroism (or not) in the face of it too, sure, but our denouement is inscribed in the whole apparatus. Dancers are acutely attuned to finitude. Dancer bodies in the current body regime have an early expiration date, and dances are organisms too, as quick and volatile as life. Repertory is an easy fix for the audience, a temporal bandage that says, “Don’t worry, it will happen again.” But it won’t happen again. Not like this. Not ever.

Unlike the rest of the two-year-long “Legacy Tour,” which comprised whole works, the Park Avenue Armory Events were Cunningham samplings, largely a commemoration of the dancers. Robert Swinston, the company’s ferocious elder statesman and the director of choreography, organized the material into the familiar, collage-style format of an Event, and each of the dancers was allowed to choose a piece of Cunningham choreography to perform. (Rashaun Mitchell and Andrea Weber each picked the same brilliant solo from Fractions (I); Melissa Toogood selected a severe and impossible-looking trio from the legendary Torse, which she danced with Daniel Madoff and John Hinrichs.) It was not a Cunningham piece but a Cunningham tribute, coordinated and performed by the people most fit to pull it off. In other hands, or for a lesser artist, it would have come off as overwrought pastiche, a That’s Entertainment!: Fifty Years of MGM Musicals kind of thing; but here the elements joined perfectly, an exemplary wake for dance as dance.

Left: A Merce Cunningham Dance Company family portrait on December 31, 2011. (Photo: Bonnie Brooks) Right: The Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Park Avenue Armory Events. Rashaun Mitchell. (Photo: Stephanie Berger)

It was impossible to take in. I’m not the first to note the challenge of trying to see Cunningham choreography. The dances themselves are built to kill lazy looking: You have to make decisions. The Events, particularly those with multiple stages (an invention of the past decade), amplify this effect. This wasn’t theater-in-the-round; it was theater-in-the-surround.

Seeing and moving were simultaneous. (Even when you were standing still you were deciding to stand still; you might as well have been moving.) This made you, to some small extent, like the dancers, but also made you all the more alert to the scission between dancer and audience. To different kinds of seeing and moving. To different relationships between seeing and apprehending. Theirs and yours. Yours and everyone else’s.

Over and over again there was the question: How should you see? Should you turn on your eidetic memory, so as to “return” to it later, or turn off your camera-eye and lose yourself in the mix? Should you stand in one place and let it unfold in a single grand, cinematic sweep? Do you sweep the floors hunting for the “best” bits? What are the “best” bits? What do we do with this seeing? “That is the crucial transition, from seeing to entering,” Jill Johnston wrote in a review of the debut of Cunningham’s Aeon fifty years ago—which at least had a nice ring to it, a useful koan. The urgency of these questions about experience became a frame for the experience; that movement of “entering” was also an exiting. Every looking-decision was a goodbye to other possibilities, a million minigoodbyes to set you up for the big one.

After fifty minutes, the fourteen dancers, all dancing across the platforms, simply walked off those black Marley stages with the same quiet authority with which they’d mounted them. The lights and music quit, and that was it.

“Well, so what do you do after you’ve witnessed the end of modern dance?” a friend asked, without a trace of irony. Someone raised a glass. And suddenly it was a new year.