The Master Rests

Merce Cunningham seems to have moved into a brighter period, a synthesis of moods and tones that have accompanied him over the years.

Watching the Merce Cunningham Dance Company two weeks ago, I thought of the times I’ve traveled a country road and felt the deep strangeness of the world–the blindly watchful quality of the rocks, the eerie rustle of the wind, and the puzzling curvature of the land. On those new roads I’m thrown back on myself. It’s an experience that’s not always easy, but one that always offers something to discover.

Now 81, and working as thoroughly as ever at the existential divide between the knowable and the unfathomable, Merce Cunningham is still throwing his audiences back upon themselves as few artists dare to do. Over the last decade his work has been limned by poignant intimations of sorrow, spiritual solitude, and, especially in last year’s premiere with Robert Rauschenberg, the mystic debris that collects at the bottom of the psychic ocean we all inhabit.

But something has shifted with Cunningham’s latest premiere, “Way Station.” He seems to have moved into a brighter period, this one a synthesis of moods and tones that have accompanied him over the years, like weather.

As its name implies, “Way Station” is a dance of refreshing lightness and strange delights, equal parts pit stop and railway stop in a career that has been one of the greatest “rides” in modern dance history. The costumes by James Hall are a visual collage suggesting Native American, ancient Roman, and Polynesian motifs on a dun background that convey dry, spare landscapes, lost rituals, and indecipherable iconography. Balloon-bright sculptures–“tripods” by Charles Long –dot the stage like neon-colored jellyfish on the ocean floor, giving “Way Station” an aqueous dimension.

The dance itself opens with ritual dance motifs–curved, gathering arms, bowed heads, catch steps forward then back. In Aaron Copp’s lighting, the sun, the earth, and the sea mingle beautifully, lending the dance a feel of sweet play and thick, lovely memory, in which illumination overpowers mélancholy. Takehisa Kosugi’s sound is an intergalactic mélange of noise, from accordion bits to moody electronic litter that makes the ringing of cell phones sound puny and whiny by comparison. It is as though Cunningham has chosen to rest, reassess, and fill up again before heading off on the next leg of the journey.

In this mysterious universe of ours, we find ourselves constantly seeking clues to the unknown and finding symbols that condense multiple meanings into a unified whole. We do this even in our sleep. Cunningham has made high art of the process, and few artists replicate the apparently random pattern of the world with as much formal beauty as he does. You can’t say a Cunningham dance means any one thing, even if each one is a study, which they always seem to be. It’s because Cunningham’s agenda is nothing less than to capture something of the endlessly ramifying character of experience. Linear story, plucked from the endless cacophony of animate and inanimate narratives, is precisely what he has been refuting since 1953, when he and John Cage set out to redesign modern dance. It’s the cacophony, seen within its ever-shifting order, that he’s after.

I saw “Way Station” Friday night, then again on Saturday, and sat first on one side of the theater, then the other. It was rather like walking back down the same road I’d traveled the day before–familiar but reordered, the changed perspective altering what was visible and how. Friday night, the dance’s light humor seemed to dominate, alongside a courtly ease in the many unison segments. I also discovered a lot of water imagery in the dance and kept seeing echoes of Cunningham himself dancing years ago. I especially loved how red-headed Holley Farmer floated her upper body in and out, and the way Derry Swan held her balances with preternatural calm and then, supple as a cat, leaped into fifth position and sprang into a brutal jeté. I also found myself captivated and reassured by the wondrous stillness of Lisa Boudreau as she stood glowing beneath the canopy of an orange pod.

Saturday I found myself musing about how the fringe on one costume looked Hawaiian, on another like the skirt of a Roman warrior, while the brown flared leg of another costume looked like a cowboy’s chaps. The pods seemed to have moved, and I wondered how many dancers would have serious arthritis in their hips someday from the dozens of ronds de jambe en l’air and grands fouettés en tournant they executed. I noted as I hadn’t the night before that the men stood out for their unison work, which seemed to place them in a world apart from the women. That, in turn, emphasized the women’s solo virtuosity, which they displayed with regal modesty. When the men danced alone, they seemed melancholically solitary and heroic.

The other piece on the program Friday night was 1999’s “BIPED.” Why did I like it so much more now than two years ago? The dance, with its muted, ritualized sorrow, its ghostly comings and goings out of a black-curtained abyss upstage, was just as exquisite in 1999. But the huge, squiggly, computer-generated stick figures and floating dot visuals by Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser that drove me mad back then seemed to have been reduced to ghostly emanations that, now, almost worked. And Gavin Bryars’ score, also called “BIPED,” now seemed to steer clear of the dominant linear cello line I remembered, which had fought against the allusiveness of the dance. Or does my memory deceive me? With Cunningham one never knows–his dances are quite impossible to fix in one’s mind. Saturday brought the reprise of 1995’s “Windows,” and of all the work presented over the weekend, this dance proved the most opaque to me. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been a Mac user since I ditched my Kaypro, and can’t address the Byzantine world of the mid-1990s Windows programs. Then again, maybe it’s because John Cage’s décor, with its black slits painted on the backdrop, reminded me of early computer cards. But I saw bits of what looked like Denishawn dances, and movements that evoked Kathakali dance and Buddhist meditation. The lightness of it all: that’s what hit me. The dancers’ unitards looked deliciously smeared with grapes, and the dancers walked about like ballerinas continually looking beneath their curved, upraised arms, the way the swans in Swan Lake forever do, peering who knows where.

The choice of “Rainforest,” the famous silver pillow dance, to end the run was perfectly pitched. Choreographed in 1968, with rectangular silver Mylar pillows dreamed up by Andy Warhol looking like outsized beads of moisture everywhere, and tossed by the dancers into the orchestra section at the end, “Rainforest” spoke eloquently to “Way Station,” and offered those who track Cunningham’s career a keen view of where he has been going these last thirty years. He hasn’t traveled far as much as dived deep. His language, which in “Rainforest” is chockablock with rainforest animal allusions, from the swinging arms of capuchin monkeys to the undulating bellies of tree frogs, is still the same language, with its signature triplets and pas de bourrée–two of ballet’s key transition steps. But it has become richer since that time. The layers seem even denser and more allusive. Cunningham’s dances do not tell us how we should read them, as the cosmos itself does not, but they burst with poetry and signs, intended and accidental, fixed and shifting. It’s not an easy ride, but, as in any landscape, there’s always something to discover.

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