Learning to Dance Merce Cunningham: Risk in Calm Containers
Is it a dance performance, a blowout birthday party or a magic act?
“Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event,” celebrating the legacy of the choreographer Merce Cunningham on the date of his birth — April 16 — is likely turn out to be a heady mix of all three. “It’s going to be so amazingly ephemeral,” said the dancer Keith Sabado, a participant. “It’ll be huge, and then it’ll be gone.”
Dances always dissolve into thin air, but with one night only the stakes are especially high for the dancers to get it right. “Night of 100 Solos” is spread among three cities: New York, London and Los Angeles. Each site will have 25 dancers (and two understudies) presenting 100 solos.
And there’s another twist: No former members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company — it was disbanded in 2011, two years after the choreographer’s death — will dance in these Events, the name that Cunningham gave to performances that reassembled excerpts from his works to create wholly new dances.
Part of the Cunningham centennial celebration, “Night of 100 Solos” is an extreme version of an Event with an ambitious aim: to open up Cunningham’s work to a new generation of dancers. And while Cunningham company members aren’t performing, they will still have a voice as coaches and stagers: They passed along the solos to new dancers.
That lineage is important to Maggie Cloud, who dances with many contemporary choreographers, including Pam Tanowitz; she learned her solo from “Interscape” (2000) from the former Cunningham dancer Derry Swan. “She was very modest and kept referring to the video,” Ms. Cloud said, “like not trusting that it was still in her body, which it totally was. I think I read it from her.”
The programs will be available through livestream on the Merce Cunningham Trust’s website and Facebook page, and will remain online three months after the performances. The Trust has also waived licensing fees for two years; that means the dancers can perform their solos again — most have four — which will also help keep Cunningham’s legacy alive.
Patricia Lent, a former company member, who is now the director of licensing for the Trust, is overseeing the performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In choosing the dancers, part of what she looked for was diversity — of technical background, age and race.
“We didn’t get quite as many of the older dancers as I hoped,” said Ms. Lent, who is working with Jean Freebury, another former company member, on the Event. Older dancers are represented. Mr. Sabado is 64. Vicky Shick, another participant, is 67.
But there is a real range of dance backgrounds. Performers include members of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Trisha Brown Dance Company, Kyle Abraham’s A.I.M and even New York City Ballet — in the intrepid form of Sara Mearns.
Understandably, the performers are nervous. The Cunningham technique is a brain and body teaser involving coordination of the torso, legs and arms, as well as timing and rhythm without the help of music. “It’s like an artistic workout,” said the dancer Marc Crousillat, who performs in the Trisha Brown company and elsewhere.
Ms. Lent said the biggest challenge of the technique is balancing clarity with risk taking. For the City Ballet principal Ms. Mearns, the Cunningham training has been revelatory. “Nothing in Cunningham is superficial,” she said. “It has to come from the deepest part inside of you. It’s like finding this strength that I’ve never had before.”
“When I learned my solos, I didn’t do ballet for a whole week,” she added. “I just did Cunningham and at the end I felt like, Oh, I’m sort of starting to get it. But it’s going to be a huge struggle. I know it.”
Mr. Sabado has an advantage over most of the others: He performed Cunningham works when he was a member of White Oak Dance Project. “I actually got to do Merce’s part in ‘Signals,’” Mr. Sabado said of a 1970 Cunningham work. “We performed it at Danspace Project for a benefit and he was being honored. I was like, I have to do this giant solo of his in front of him?”
Cunningham didn’t say anything afterward, but he did smile. “I took that as a good sign,” Mr. Sabado said.
For the Event at the Brooklyn Academy, one of his solos is from “Canfield” (1969), originally danced by Cunningham.
“This solo is so Merce to me in terms of its relationship to gravity,” Mr. Sabado said. “The quick changes of direction are huge and they have their own logic if you kind of give yourself up to them. It feels like his body in a way. I feel like I get to communicate with his body and spirit and his way of feeling dancing.”
At one point he holds a plank position: While there, he said, he can see Cunningham in his “mind’s eye and then I feel the rhythm that might have been appropriate for that move,” he said. “I don’t want to get too crazy spiritual about it, but is really fascinating.”
While it’s true the ghosts of dancers past, including of Cunningham himself, pervade the solos, there are practical issues to think about as well. The Cunningham Trust has given the dancer and designer Reid Bartelme double duty: He will perform in the Brooklyn show, and he is creating the costumes for the three shows — 81 costumes in all — with his design partner, Harriet Jung. They landed on a palette of eight different colors; silhouettes will range from unitards, jumpsuits and tops and bottoms.
Mr. Bartelme, who has danced with ballet companies as well as with the choreographer Lar Lubovitch, has studied the Cunningham technique on and off for years; he also has friends in both the classical and contemporary dance worlds. When the dancers, as part of the Event, were granted free Cunningham classes through the Trust, Ms. Mearns turned to Mr. Bartelme for guidance.
“Cunningham class can be so intimidating because you have to know” the movement exercises, said Mr. Bartelme. “So when I have ballet friends who want to come take Cunningham I usually give them a tutorial on the back exercises so they don’t go in totally confused.”
The back warm-up is important: Cunningham technique focuses strongly on the spine; the back may be used either in opposition to or in unison with the legs.
“You’re not always looking in the mirror,” Mr. Bartelme added. “Sometimes you’re looking at the floor or the side of the room or behind you. It’s so hard to continue having an understanding of where you are and what your body should be doing in space.”
Jacquelin Harris, a member of the Ailey company, said she appreciated how the technique teaches complete body awareness. “It’s this idea that each limb and each area of your body has its own power and those powers need to come together to create the dance,” she said. “It’s beautiful. I can use that in any aspect of my dancing.”
Shayla-Vie Jenkins, a former member of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, said that when the performers were learning their solos in January at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, there were two or three dancers in the studio at any given time. That will mirror the Event itself, which will fill the stage with overlapping solos.
“I was watching people before and after me and I was like, Whoa, this technique and this style — they’re like daredevils,” she said. “It’s so much risk inside of a calm container.”
It means something that she is a black woman dancing this work, she said. In its 58-year history, the company never had a black female member. (There were four black male dancers.) “I’ve never seen my likeness on his stage, and maybe it’s part of the reason, as a young dancer, I found the company so unattainable, so unreachable,” Ms. Jenkins said. “I didn’t see myself reflected in it.”
And that is another, unwritten layer of “Night of 100 Solos.”
“I think part of the point is to have different bodies, new bodies be a part of his legacy,” Ms. Jenkins said. “To put our bodies in the legacy of Cunningham. To try that on. And now I feel like I am a part of a kind of lineage.”