Sunday, April 19, 2009
Merce at 90
Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing "Nearly Ninety" at BAM, photo by Stephanie Berger
We went to BAM this afternoon to see "Nearly Ninety," the new piece by Merce Cunningham Dance Company (Merce in fact turned 90 on Thursday). It was phenomenal. Music by a conglomerate of Sonic Youth, John Paul Jones (of Led Zeppelin), and longtime MC collaborator Takehisa Kosugi, costumes by Romeo Gigli, and video by Franc Aleu. It is hard to comprehend how a 90-year-old can make a one-and-a-half hour piece that is so up-to-the-minute, in terms of visuals, sound and design, except that his modus operandi has always been one of choosing people to work with and then letting them create their parts, which come together only at the end. Usually, the dancers do not hear the music until the dress rehearsal. You could feel the excitement in the dancers' faces at times, used, as they have been, to dancing their pieces in silence, or rather to the accompaniment of footfalls and heavy breathing. In the first half, everything combined seamlessly — the music noisily crescendoing and decrescendoing, the watery images projected onto a scrim. Dancers moved in pairs or trios, often slowly, standing on one leg, the other extended, sometimes trembling at the knee, so difficult is it to hold those positions in the stress of a rapidly-changing performance. The dancers, particularly the women, were brilliant. One became so mesmerized by the spectacle — and the simplicity of the choreography — that the strength and control of the dancers was constantly re-emphasized. Sometimes, it was the head and upper body that remained in synch, while spinning; other times, it was a high, slow stretch, followed by a dive by the hands to floor (a gesture repeated several times by different combinations of dancers). The dancers who made the greatest impression on me were Julie Cunningham (a relation?), Jennifer Goggans, David Madoff, Marcie Munnerlyn, and Melissa Toogood. The projections did not work so well in the second half, as they became more literal (we could see close up what the musicians were doing at one point, at another details of dancers), and the progressive removal of scrims forced attention on an awkward neo-Constructivist structure supporting the musicians, whereas it had been more suggestive when we could only make out their vague outlines at the beginning. The piece ended, as all Merce's pieces do, in full flow. Everyone came to take a bow, and Merce himself was wheeled out in a wheelchair. During the standing ovation that followed, he gestured gently several times to the rafters. It could be taken as a recognition that this might be his last season on stage. More likely, like the basketball player who takes on cheerleading duties, he was telling the crowd to pump up the volume. We walked out into bright Brooklyn daylight dazzled.