As an artist, dancer and choreographer who sought to “enlarge the possibilities” given in any one space, body or moment, Merce Cunningham may have seen in his imminent death the chance to make irrefutably creative choices about just how that passing would take place.
In July 2009, at 90, the respected dance choreographer died quietly in his New York apartment. His death propelled decisions that culminated in a two-year Legacy Tour for the dancers. A plan makes provisions for digital preservation of the company's vaunted works and the transfer of the foundation to a trust, while the tour is working its way across the globe.
For two shows this week, Modlin Center will present the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, the last set of dancers to be trained by the master. What makes these performances so bittersweet is the directive that the company dissolve after a final performance in New York on New Year's Eve 2011.
In light of this finality, you can imagine Cunningham savoring a sort of posthumous koan, or riddle: Within an art form “that gives nothing back” to its dancers, that extracts blood and sweat for little reward, he perhaps means to play with ideas of permanence and impermanence, giving us a taste of the corporeal before letting it evaporate forever.
In Richmond the company will perform evening-length “Events.” As the company's executive director, Trevor Carlson, explains these creations, “They are like movement collages, with choreography that will cover over six decades of Merce's creative life.”
Carlson seems most passionate about the depth of the choreographer's influence: “I worked with [Merce] for 12 years, and he totally changed my life, my perspective on the world and my work. Merce believed that if you say ‘no' to something, you wipe out any chance for growth or possibilities. You've closed the door. But if you say ‘yes,' regardless of whether what you're doing is feasible, you might find out something that you hadn't known before.”
Cunningham's appetite for the possible, for leaving the door open and saying “yes,” was voracious. It can be seen in his collaborative works with musicians as varied as John Cage and Sonic Youth, and with visual artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. It's apparent in his use of technology for creating movement options. Instead of eschewing a changing world, he sought the possible in it.
Perhaps when we as an audience bid a Richmond farewell to Merce Cunningham's Company, we can intuit this spirit of the possible, of playful dualities such as change as movement and movement as transformation. All of which point to Cunningham's very much alive essence — as unraveling secret, as a constant unfolding in the lives he touched. S
The Merce Cunningham Dance Company will perform Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 at the Modlin Center for the Performing Arts, both shows at 7:30 p.m. For information, go to modlin.richmond.edu.