Night of 100 Solos: London

Martin Hargreaves on the London celebration of Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday

Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event. Performance view, the Barbican Theater, April 16, 2019. Photo: Stephen Wright.

AROUND FIFTEEN MINUTES into the one-and-a-half hour performance of Night of 100 Solos: A Centenary Event at the Barbican Theatre, the phrase SKILL—FOR THE HOLES was projected against a large cyclorama onstage. Shadows cast by readymades, 2019, was part of artist Richard Hamilton’s contribution to the evening, splicing Duchampian images with found texts from engineering manuals. Although it runs counter to the aleatory spirit of a Cunningham Event to use any one part as the key with which to decode another, this aphoristic slogan resonated in my mind for the rest of the performance. The pleasures of watching dancers from across the United Kingdom and Europe were, in part, those of admiring the skillful expertise required by Cunningham’s solos. Amongst the dancers were those from The Royal Ballet, and BalletBoyz, who hadn’t performed the Cunningham repertory before; some from the Rambert Dance Company, who had; and others who’d worked with Michael Clark, the British choreographer who perhaps has been most influenced by Cunningham’s cut-up collagist approach to classicism. There was skill aplenty in terms of the complex coordination, balance and proprioception demanded by the range of extracts drawn from the choreographer’s works from 1959 to 2009, but the holes were many—and just as pleasurable.

Cunningham’s collaborator and partner, composer John Cage, said that in order to show love to an audience you need to get out of their way. Together their idea was to leave enough gaps in their work so that a viewer’s job is to think and feel alongside it, rather than deduce what the artists were thinking and feeling. The largest hole in Cunningham’s approach to choreography is the rupture he performed by rending himself in the late 1950s both from classical ballet and from expressive modern dance; this move still feels relevant today. British mainstream dance is dominated by a handful of celebrity choreographers who want to tell you a story, and make sure you feel something about it. This tribute Event questioned how and why the legacy of Cunningham might live on past his centennial. One answer is that his work reminds choreographers and dancers to leave a large part of their egos behind.

Another hole was made evident by the performances of the professional ballet dancers, who at times seemed to lapse back into the stylization they are used to. Cunningham drew on classical technique, but left out its ornamentation and sentimental flourishes. For one: Ballet asks a dancer to finish, whereas Cunningham asks them to stop. Ballet’s finish is often a lyrical phrasing that suggests a romantic curling off of a line into the ether, a slight gesture or nod of the head to mimic the musical accent. Cunningham’s stops are blunter punctuations, almost lists of possible tilts or curves, syncopated jumps or accented limb-stabs. The thrill of his work is not procured by ethereal sylphs or emotional heroism but by the seemingly illogical and contradictory shifts of the dancer’s body in several directions at once. Cunningham was not interested in difficulty for its own sake, but pursued a virtuosity found in the revealing of a trembling calf muscle fighting to keep the body in a precarious state of balance, or the synaptic speed needed to embody movement created on a digital avatar that doesn’t worry about gravity, or the various somatic consequences of landing with a jolt. Some of the 100 Solos came from the choreographer’s later works, created when he could no longer dance so instead used software to devise the sequencing of movement. BIPED (1999) was one such, immersed in the possibilities of removing fleshly restrictions from composition. I first saw it at the Barbican twenty years ago, and the extracts from it in this Event still looked as uncanny and as startling.

Over the course of the evening what really came through was Cunningham’s interest in the labor of dancing, in the mental and physical work needed to embody the near impossible combinations produced by chance or algorithms. The choreographer was fond of saying that it was his love of dancing that motored his work, rather than psychology or semiotics, but Daniel Squire, the ex-company member who staged the Event, also chose several extracts that demonstrated Cunningham’s love of the absurd and the idiosyncratic. Antic Meet (1958) is a particularly slapstick and parodic piece, which was first shown in London in 1964. Jonathan Goddard’s rendition of the soft shoe shuffle from this work—an odd but engaging filtering of a Gene Kelly-like charm through the depersonalizing effects of chance procedures—was a standout moment that night. In his other solos, Goddard embodied (rather than mimicked) Cunningham’s elastic flicks of the wrist, his oddly scatty tick within an otherwise systematic approach to composition. Siobhan Davies, a key pioneer of contemporary dance in the UK, also explored the choreographer’s idiosyncrasies with a quiet sense of authority. Now in her late sixties, she possessed a gravitas on stage, a clarity in her sculpting of space and a surety in her stillnesses that evoked the man himself.

A standing ovation capped off this sold out birthday party, but I left pondering the question of what Cunningham’s work will continue to ask of dancers and audiences outside of its secure place within dance history. There’s something about the vertiginous difficulty of the work, to perform and to watch, that destabilizes any easy nostalgia—and keeps us watching for the holes.

Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event was performed on April 16 as a three-part presentation honoring the work of Merce Cunningham at the the Barbican Theater in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, and at CAP UCLA’s Royce Hall in Los Angeles.