Night of 100 Solos: New York

Deborah Jowitt on the New York celebration of Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday

Night of 100 Solos: A Centenary Event. Performance view, Brooklyn Academy of Music,  April 16, 2019. Photo: Stephanie Berger.

ON APRIL 16, ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO, MERCE CUNNINGHAM WAS BORN. On April 15, 2019, I was sitting in the balcony of the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House among the hundred or so people watching the final run-through of the “Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event.” Can I say that I assisted at the memorial’s birth? Probably not.

The program took even more risks than the patchworked material that his company used to perform worldwide as Events. Each of the seventy-five dancers celebrating his birthday (twenty-five in New York, and the same number in London and in Los Angeles) learned short passages culled from his pieces. In New York, these were taught by a bevy of former Cunningham company members and staged by two of them: Patricia Lent and her associate, Jean Freebury. Chance procedures, rather than choices, surely governed some of their decisions.

Talk about a rainbow coalition. None of the people onstage had been members of Cunningham’s company, although many had taken classes in his technique or been influenced by his ideas. They dance or have danced in, for example, the Mark Morris Dance Company (Keith Sabado), New York City Ballet (Sara Mearns), the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company (Chalvar Monteiro, Jacquelin Harris), the Martha Graham Company (PeiJu Chien-Pott), the Trisha Brown Company (Cecily Campbell, Vicky Shick, Marc Crousillat); others perform in smaller noteworthy ensembles. Some, like Kyle Abraham, have companies of their own that are known world-wide. Many are choreographers.

Appropriately, Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung have costumed them in variously cut practice clothes in yellow, green, red, salmon, rust, or dark blue. (Bartelme also performs in the celebration). Set designer Pat Steir wisely decided against competing with the onstage action. Her subtly shifting projections hint at phantom waterfalls and rains, moss-covered forms, clouds—all in white and shades of gray and often tinged blue by Christine Schallenberg’s lighting. The musicians in the pit (David Behrman, Gelsey Bell, John King, Matana Roberts, and Jesse Stiles) provided an aural landscape in which live instruments (guitar, alto saxophone, et al) mingled with electronic sounds—sometimes fiercely, sometimes quietly, sometimes falling silent.

An introductory film, put together by Cunningham alumnus Daniel Madoff, and shown online in connection with the three events, presents Merce himself dancing in his works. If you didn’t already know he was a divine madman—now serene, now buffeted by unseen storms, now intense, now entertained by whatever he was doing—you’d learn it. The splendid dancers onstage that night were sleeker, less reckless than he, but they understood his attention to the moment at hand and his ability to make highly dissimilar steps seem part of an ongoing flow.

Throughout the ninety-minute piece, they came and went, passed through, stayed a while, replaced one another. Sometimes a single dancer performed. Often several of them danced alone together, each focused on his/her “statement.” After about an hour, all twenty-five assembled onstage and froze in various positions for quite a long time (perhaps an allusion to John Cage’s silent piano composition, 4’33’’). What they offered was daunting. Their bodies were mostly erect, their gazes piercing, and any one of them might have erupted in a bout of speedy footwork; with their legs turned out, their arms neutral, they brushed and jabbed and flicked their feet against the floor. Their heads, arms, body, and legs coalesced in what might have seemed arbitrary moves, flowing or jolting together. They paused, as if arrested by a sudden thought. They leapt and jumped and spun. They slid to the floor, rose, and slid again.

Much of Cunningham’s choreography is arduous. Imagine hopping rapidly backward around the stage in a curving path; imagine landing from a leap and maintaining the one-legged position in which you landed; imagine assuming various difficult balances so slowly that wobbling is an ever-present threat.

Occasionally a dancer (Bartelme, for one) appeared to be channeling Cunningham himself —flinging his (or her) arms around, hunching over, feet thrashing. Abraham in the course of a smoothly complex solo labored at crawling face down across the floor. You imagine Merce trying to rid himself of his demons.

Your eyes were kept busy. When four people simultaneously performed solos in place, you could catch unintentional correspondences; one person’s suddenly-lifted leg could seem to cause someone else’s similar gesture. There was so little contact among those onstage that when it happened you tended to remember it: Christian Allen sitting in a split; Jacquelin Harris leaning over and putting her hand on his shoulder to brace herself while she hopped on one leg. When Lindsey Jones tiny-stepped across the stage in right-angled paths, holding a black umbrella overhead, Joshua Tuason picked her up without altering her position and deposited her elsewhere. During a quiet meeting of Cecily Campbell, Vicky Shick, and Maggie Cloud, one of them briefly laid her cheek against a companion’s held-out palm. Each took a turn at this within the unstopping current of movement.

The umbrella wasn’t the only prop. Without pausing in her dance, Eleanor Hullihan managed to wind a strip of cloth neatly around her brow. David Norsworthy (amazingly nimble) kept moving to a new place with a folding chair on which he perched and mimed rowing. It’s the same chair that Crousillat placed upstage left and, channeling Cunningham, walked, step-hold, step-hold, around it several times. Jason Collins jumped about with beverage cans strapped to his legs. Sabado circled the stage on a bicycle.

This anthology of fragments from Cunningham dances executed by these terrific, very diverse dancers, was an homage, an ordeal, and a feast, performed with diligence, grace, and understanding. No wonder many spectators’ eyes were wet. No wonder we cheered and cheered. Happy Birthday, Merce, and thank you for the art you gave us over the years. Wish you could have been sitting among us, watching the show.

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.