Review – Merce Cunningham dance company final London visit (Pond Way, Second Hand, Antic Meet, Roaratorio, RainForest, BIPED) – Barbican Center

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Summer, love, happened so fast … Summer love, thought it would last ….

It all started in 1996, when I saw Beach Birds at Seattle’s Meany Hall. I was amazed by the beautiful movement on stage, so much so that I’ve tried to catch his dance company whenever they were in town (and finances allowed). I loved so much being able to see works by someone who’d been a genius for so long they were just going wherever their muse took them, and doing it beautifully. It was unquestionably the strongest feeling I’ve ever had of “being in the presence of a master” in all of the dance I’ve ever seen (though at the time I was still new to modern dance). I felt lucky to have joined him so late but to still be able to go along for part of the glorious, glorious ride.

But Merce was already old when I saw this piece performed, and I knew our affair could not last. Sadly, he broke it off in 2009, leaving me a tiny bit heartbroken but knowing we’d both given it our all. Expecting it to be the last goodbye, I made it to see “Nearly Ninety” in October 2010 and left feeling like I’d just gotten a hand scribbled note (folded somewhat elaborately) – it seemed tossed off for fun and not really thought out. And it left me cold. Merce, Merce, was this really it?

Thankfully his company decided to do a proper farewell tour, which gave me an opportunity to end it all on a high note. I dithered for months over whether or not I was going to have to go to New York to get my last fix, but a London program was announced at last, and it was an embarrassment of riches: six dances, only one of which I had seen before. I had booked a flight to Venice for the first night, but convinced myself that rather than see the Bienale, what I really wanted was one last romantic weekend with the man I loved before it was really and truly over; a chance for us to laugh and surprise each other and really revel in how good it was between us. And, well, it was all just a bit expensive, but I consoled myself by remembering how much a Venice hotel room for one was going to run and convinced myself that by staying for Merce I was really saving money in the end.

The first program opened with “Pond Way” (1998), a glorious gesamtkunstwerk with a Lichtenstein backdrop that for me evoked sand dunes; the dancers dressed in flowing white tops and harem pants; and the most fantastic Brian Eno music accompanied it all. For me, the whole thing felt like watching images appear through a mirage, solidify, then fade away. I saw Bedouins, camels, palm trees, belly dancers, cranes – the mental miasma of a million Attenborough specials rising through my subconscious to provide meaning to the forms in front of me. And, of course, the music was a dream for an Eno fan like me. The whole thing was fabulous.

Next up was “Second Hand” (1970), which had the dancers costumed in colorful, crayon-like shirts (kind of American-apparel-esque). There seemed to be a central conflict between an older dancer, who to me looked like a Merce Cunningham stand in, who kept trying to get the attention of one of the young women of the dance troop. In my mind, the piece became “Captain Kirk Can’t Get a Date” and I wasn’t able to take it seriously. (The wide collars and deep neckline of the men’s shirts just made it too ’70s comical for me.)

Our final piece of opening night was “Antic Meet” (1958), which was actually MEANT to be funny. It had a very uncompromising John Cage score of fists on piano and other strange noises that brought to mind the Trockadero’s “Patterns in Space” with its very, very serious musicians popping bubble wrap. Only, instead of being grim, we had jolly dancers on stage: one carrying a chair strapped to his back, another appearing and disappearing behind doors, a third fighting for a very long time with a sweater that had four arms and no obvious place for a head. So while the whole thing would have been incredibly depressing if it had been done with no self-awareness, instead Merce for me showed a whole ‘nother side of his personality: that he could let himself be funny and that sometimes all of this freaky modern dancing is, really, just comic. I’d never seen a modern dance show where people were just able to laugh; and, I think for most of the people in the audience, it was an entirely new feeling and one that was a great relief – so many things that they’d wanted to laugh about for ages and finally they were given license to go! And, all things considered, the score was great. Really, it was an awesome evening, and it alone would have satisfied me as the end to my big love affair with Merce.

That said, the tension was high as the end drew nearer, and I’m afraid I may have had one cider too many (that is, one) before going to “Roaratorio.” I loved Cage’s score for this piece, a mix of himself reading Finnegan’s Wake (which I took to be Ulysses as I sat there, programless – Joyce’s voice is very identifiable even though I haven’t finished even one of his books), sound recording which seemed to illustrate the text, and bits of traditional Irish music all jumbled up in a very Cage way. The whole thing was completely appreciable as a concert event. That said, the action on stage – typical abstract Merce movement but with more smiling than usual and rather a lot of traditional Irish dancing leavened in (like butter in a biscuit) – didn’t do anything for me. In fact, I was having a bit of a hard time not nodding off, and my brain did actually go into full free-association mode (perhaps not inappropriately given the source material). Watching the dancers change clothes and move the chairs on stage around wasn’t providing me with enough to hang my brain on. It was only sixty minutes, but this felt like the night at the bar where I sat telling Merce’s best friend how much I was going to miss him while not getting a whole lot of sympathy.

I had some time away after this, a whole day to sit and think about the good times. And then we had our very last date together ever, for RainForest (1968) and Biped (1999). RainForest just killed me: with Andy Warhol’s forty or so big, silver, mylar pillow-shaped balloons (the “set”) barely keeping contact with the ground (and floating off into the audience AND the orchestra pit, forcing the conducter to THWAP them back out), the whole thing became a giant, Pop-art comedy dance, complete with an exploded set piece (something I’d really never seen before, a sad crumpled bit of mylar sitting on the stage like a gazelle on the Serengeti plains). The dance seemed just as much designed to act as if the pillows weren’t there as to acknowledge them by forcefully kicking them away as the performers attempted to do “the moevement” in the exact planes designated. It seemed as much an exercise in the intersection of movement and art as it was a dance, and I had to imagine Andy Warhol being very satisfied with the effect. For me, it was like me and Merce doing one of those young lovers on the beach montages, as we ran around kicking sand, splashing around, and giggling like kids, all light and laughs and joy and lots of salty, ionized air amping up the energy.

Then it was the end, with BIPED, a piece I’d seen three years ago nearly to the day. It was like being taken back to a restaurant we’d discovered together, but in a different season, so the menu had changed a bit but it was all still so tasty and flavored with the memories of us together. I remember struggling with the animations before, but (especially seen right after a matinee of Wayne McGregor’s Limen) I had new appreciation for the overall use of light, as dancers appeared and disappeared at the back of the stage, as the floor changed colors beneath them, as they seemed to dance with the animated projections of their own bodies. I could see that these drawings were quite perfectly drawn from their own bodies doing the moves that Merce had created, and I thought, look, he has gone, and I will never see these dances again, but he lived long enough to come into technologies that could really and truly help preserve his legacy, as well as living long enough to discover a million more ways he could use these advances to just push the dance forward as an artist. We held hands tightly as the dancers, teary eyed, took one bow after another to a room full of people who knew they’d never see them dancing together again. But Merce and I had always known it would have to come to an end; thankfully, we had one last weekend to make sure the last of our time together would leave memories for (and of) a lifetime.

(This reminiscence is for a series of performances that took place from October 5 through 8th, 2011. If you are feeling particularly desolate, they are continuing to tour until the end of the year and will be in Paris in the middle of December.)

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