Night of 100 Solos: Los Angeles

Megan Metcalf on the Los Angeles celebration of Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday

Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event. Performance view, CAP UCLA’s Royce Hall, April 16, 2019. Photo: Reed Hutchinson.

WHAT MAKES A CUNNINGHAM DANCER? What makes a Cunningham dance? These questions flickered in my mind like the digital butterflies on the massive screen in UCLA’s Royce Hall as I watched the Los Angeles iteration of Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, a celebration of the late choreographer’s one-hundredth birthday. Once the ninety-minute performance and all standing ovations were over, I was no nearer to an answer but better off for bearing witness to brilliant dancing and the sheer dedication to Merce Cunningham’s legacy.

There was the explosive pass across the stage by Rena Butler, a standout of the evening who delivered ferocious presence and decisive control of Cunningham’s athletic choreography. Victor Lozano slithered in from the wings, stretching his limbs past reasonable extension and isolating joints most of us don’t know we have—a Cunningham signature. Katherine Helen Fisher—one of the more interesting, unconventional choices of dancers (and an LA local)—let the straight lines and curves of a series of poses work through her body like fish rippling through water. Both alone and in small groupings, the company of twenty-six danced in front of giant, animated images of swaying trees, swirling plants, and bouncing fruit that were painfully crisp until they went blurry, evoking the dappled backdrop Robert Rauschenberg painted for Summerspace over sixty years ago. The mix of electronic sounds and live instruments, overseen by Stephan Moore, conjured bygone days at moments, too; the din of waves crashing especially brought to mind Ocean (1994), the last collaboration between Cunningham and his partner, composer John Cage.

But the birthday party stayed mostly in the present, an ambiguous temporality somewhere between our collective remembering and forgetting the “real” Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) and the “real” Cunningham dancers. (Longtime fans hold fast to different loyalties: to the group that took the company’s final bow in 2011, or to those who performed with MCDC in 2009, the year Cunningham died—or to the fabled band that fell apart on tour in 1964, and on and on...) This year’s celebration exacerbated these allegiances. Using the “Event” format crucial for sustaining MCDC over the years, solos from the choreographer’s decades-deep repertory were combined into three continuous ninety-minute productions, one in New York, one in London, and one here in LA. The evenings featured more than seventy-five performers from around the world with varying backgrounds in Cunningham’s technique and repertory, none of whom had ever been official members of the company.

Was it wise or fair to ask performers who had not dedicated their careers to Cunningham’s precision and athleticism to take on his material? He was famously exacting, his choreography famously difficult—and his unitards famously unforgiving. The idea, however, was solidly in line with the values of Cunningham’s “Legacy Plan,” which recognized the limited scope of Cunningham’s posthumous reach, and insisted on the finality of the company after his death. Once he was gone, they were gone. What we see now when we watch performances of his work are experiments in transmission, with varying degrees of self-consciousness about its inherent inexactitude and entropy.

The Merce Cunningham Trust played a leading role in Night of 100 Solos and the (limited) accompanying materials confirmed the qualifications of the dancers while emphasizing the authority of the former company members who had passed on the evening’s dances. Such a framework defined the terms of the Event’s “authenticity” and standards of success while underplaying the value of the looser, more human elements on view. Many of the evening’s performers exposed the lighter side of Cunningham’s choreography, letting its vaudevillian origins shine through. For example: A shuffle forward with flat feet and bent knees, arms pinned down at the sides and the head swiveling like a knob, was a performance closer to a character study than a sleek and robotic dance. Indeed, many of the moves Cunningham invented that demanded a dancer’s legs remain strictly parallel here looked pleasingly priggish and ridiculous.

More importantly, the evening offered audiences some long-overdue what-ifs. What if a Cunningham cast was diverse in age, race, body type, and training? I was knocked out by the backbend of a very young man that built on the bridges executed by a much older dancer. There were multiple performers of color on stage at once—a much-needed change. What if more of the effort required to perform a Cunningham dance was allowed to show? In one of the rare (and welcome) instances of contact between dancers, three men lifted a woman straight up off the ground. With arms outstretched and legs rooted down, her body’s rising weight and volume were visible, and a sudden, stunning arch of her ribcage revealed the absurd demands of his choreography on a body. In the end, not all of the what-ifs were fruitful: There was the lingering sense that not every dancer’s gifts were best paired with Cunningham’s choreography. And, as was the case in MCDC’s final years, the Event went on a bit too uniformly, and ran a bit long.  

If the Event safely set the standards for its own triumph while limiting the frame of its reception, it hinted at developments that may take place as time goes on. What, for instance, would we see if Los Angeles’s dance community—in all its breadth, including commercial dancers, historical companies like those of Lula Washington and Rudy Perez, and the big well of resources from programs at CalArts, USC, and UCLA—was matched with Cunningham’s time- and space-bending material? What new dancers of his dances could replace the old ones in memory? What new ideas would refresh the old debates about what Cunningham’s work was, and is, supposed to be? The boldest gamble of the Legacy Plan is that choices made without the artist’s oversight could eventually make his dances unrecognizable—and to some they might already be. I can’t wait for more evolutions.

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 Barbican Theater in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, and at CAP UCLA’s Royce Hall in Los Angeles.