Echo Park

David Velasco on the Merce Cunningham Park Avenue Armory Event box set

Left: Cover for Cunningham Dance Foundation, Park Avenue Armory Event, 2012. Photo: Stephanie Berger. Emma Desjardins and Brandon Collwes. Right: Cunningham Dance Foundation, Park Avenue Armory Event, 2012, digital video, color, sound, 53 minutes. Andrea Weber and Brandon Collwes.

ONE OF THE BEST FILMS OF 2012 was not released in theaters or shown at any festivals or streamed on Netflix or anywhere really but is only available on DVD through a small San Francisco–based nonprofit art-film distributor. The Park Avenue Armory Event, a capstone of one of the great achievements in art of any era—the technique and choreography that travels under the vulpine name “Merce Cunningham”—is now viewable on a three-DVD release from Artpix.

Park Avenue Armory Event: six performances featuring fourteen dancers dancing “excerpts” of fifty years of choreography on three separate stages in that massive, titular space over the course of three nights, December 29–31, 2011. It was the final performance of the Cunningham Company and a goodbye to modern dance. It was a delirious, historic occasion. Lessons in seeing. Lessons in getting lost. Lessons in coming up for air and finding that not all air is like every other air. It was the sort of thing you can get all glowy about. There will never be anything remotely like it again.

The Artpix release, produced by the Cunningham Dance Foundation and accompanied by a pitch-perfect essay by Douglas Crimp, is as smart and elegant an homage to the actual events as one could have hoped for. It’s a miracle the filmmakers were able to do Park Avenue Armory Event justice at all. That they’re able to capture it this vividly is remarkable. Dancer and videographer Nic Petry edited footage culled from nine cameras and two performances into a single, fifty-minute film synthesizing the action on all three stages. The camera-eye is different from the human-eye, and the dancers it anoints for history are different from the ones my own memory chose. I wonder, too, if the camera-eye will eventually overwrite my mind’s-eye. But in the end it doesn’t matter. Let my memories and these edit-memories mingle and swell.

If you feel cramped by the jump-cuts, disc two features uncut views of the dancing from each of the stages. Disc three includes excerpts from sixteen dances—from Suite for Five, 1956–58, to Nearly Ninety², 2009—reprised during the Cunningham Company’s two-year valedictory Legacy Tour. Here’s original footage from RainForest, 1968, where you can see Cunningham himself dance his mad, inimitable solo, swiping at and about Warhol’s sublimely in-the-way silver balloons. It all makes a perfect companion to Aperture’s iPad-only release from this summer, Merce Cunningham: 65 Years (a crucial update to the classic Merce Cunningham: 50 Years). A compendium of journal entries, videos, drawings, essays, and photos—all chronicled by Cunningham’s longtime archivist David Vaughan—the App is its own special event, an engaging history/biography/information-bank that really fulfills the promise of “multimedia.” The trove includes (among many great moments) a dusty film clip of a young and buoyant Cunningham dancing with Martha Graham and Eric Hawkins in Graham’s Every Soul Is a Circus, 1940. That Cunningham feels a million miles away from the Cunningham memorialized in Park Avenue Armory Event feels a million miles from the land of no-Cunningham now.

The Park Avenue Armory Event DVD box set is now available through Artpix and Microcinema International. Merce Cunningham: 65 Years is available from Aperture.