Country Dance

Beacon, NY

Merce Cunningham, Beacon Event, 2008. Performance view, Dia:Beacon, Beacon, NY. (Photo: Anna Finke)

After the Friday-night premiere of Mark Morris’s interpretation of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet—in which, faithful to the recently unearthed pre-Stalinist score, the star-crossed lovers survive for a last dance—I followed the Hudson down from Bard to Beacon on Sunday to see the Merce Cunningham Dance Company perform amid Dia’s monumental Richard Serra Torqued Ellipses. It was my second “Event,” as these performances are billed, in a year (I saw another at the grounds of the Philip Johnson Glass House), and the fourth in a series at Dia, each held in a different gallery. Here the staging, with marley mats at either end of the hangerlike space, forced the dancers to run back and forth behind the sculptures, pausing, occasionally, for a surreptitious solo.

Inside each COR-TEN-steel hull, a single musician, with a set of instruments, mics, or turntables, sent music either to large speakers positioned opposite each stage, where it was mixed with the output of the other musicians, or to smaller speakers installed within each structure, effectively turning the sculptures themselves into enormous sounding boxes. The music, material composed according to an original Cage scheme (Cunningham and Cage were, of course, longtime partners as well as collaborators), followed only the dictum that it last, collectively, as long as the dance. According to the composer Newton Armstrong, one of the four musicians, the directives have become “basically an oral tradition.” Yet, he added, “when you do it, it feels like a Cage piece.” Stephen Moore, of the dance company’s “music committee,” explained that, with such an unscripted piece, “the big thing is who you pick to play; Cage always had a stable of amazing players.”

The dancers carried out Cunningham’s exacting choreography (older excerpts combined with new material designed with his three-dimensional-animation software, Danceforms) with athletic precision—only their sweat-drenched costumes hinted at the demands of performing like a machine (or avatar). Afterward, Jonah Bokaer, founder of performance space Chez Bushwick, citing his experience as a former Cunningham dancer, explained that—even as an audience member—“I felt the performance in my body.”

Throughout the performance, the audience was free to wander the gallery space and enter the sculptures. Along the long wall, dancers appeared and disappeared behind the hulking forms, while the stages were virtually invisible from anywhere but the far ends of the space, where the gallery opened to the out-of-doors. It was impossible to get a totalizing view. I ran into artist and theorist Simon Leung, arriving along with Yvonne Rainer and Joan Jonas; he informed me that, for this very reason, he had secured tickets to both performances that day: On one viewing, “you can’t see the whole thing.” I spied Serra himself looking on from the far corner of the gallery space and, after the performance, thought I’d ask Cunningham whether Serra had played any role in the staging of the day’s events. Cunningham, surprised at the question, responded that he “hoped Dia told him we were performing here.”

Michael Wang