The Merce Cunningham Company

Merce Cunningham Dance Company
Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley
Presented by CalPerformances
Saturday, March 27, 2010

I caught one of the last BART trains back to San Francisco from Berkeley, just after midnight.  Exhausted, I pulled open the book I’ve been working my way through for the past month or so, the nearly 600 page memoir of Carolyn Brown, a founding dancer of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company that elegantly relates her experiences performing with the company for over twenty years.  A mix of personal journey and gossipy tell-all, the book also intrigues for its accounts of the avant-garde visual art and music scenes of the 1950s and 60s in New York.

Reading about the company’s first European tour, the name David Vaughan kept popping up, he being the company’s manager on that particular tour.  In a moment of disbelief, I realized that I had, in fact, been enjoying a glass of wine with that very (now elderly) gentleman just half an hour prior.  One of those rare moments when one feels so personally touched by history.  Suddenly, in a very small, insignificant and completely individual way, I felt myself part of Brown’s book, thinking that had it continued for another 600 or so pages, I might find myself casually mentioned in a footnote.

Earlier that afternoon, I had arrived in Berkeley on one of those spectacular spring days in the Bay Area – a startling blue sky with not a hint of cloud and the sun feeling warm and comfortable.  On such days in the Bay, one drops all prior commitments to be outside and honor the weather.  But my destination was a dark theater.  And truly, there’s no other place I wanted to be.

Participating three summers ago in the National Endowment for the Arts Institute in Dance Criticism at the American Dance Festival, I met fellow writer Geoffrey Finger, an incredibly insightful, intelligent, genuine, and super fun kind of guy. Now the Company Manager of the Cunningham company, he invited me to attend a company rehearsal for a newly remounted work, “Roaratorio” from the 1980s.  A rather new piece for many of the company and extremely complex in its patterns and rhythms, the silent run-through (it will be performed to a score with equally complex rhythms to counter that of the movement) was not done full-out but was nevertheless captivating, aided in fact by the silence.

Archivist David Vaughan of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company

The theater was empty save for me and an older man who sat in a box at the side.  It was David Vaughan, though I didn’t know this at the time.

That evening I returned for the public performance of Nearly 90 II, an epic 85 minute work that is a slow, steady unveiling of moods and relationships.  From reading about the company for the past month, I was particularly attuned to the weight and significance of the gestures, the bodies in relationship to each other, the difficult balances and the complicated patterns.

This is a hard dance.  It moves slowly and demands complete control and focus.  Though with moments of lightness and speed, the hint of smiles, and sections that exude joy, the overall feeling is one that is dark and contemplative.  This is also suggested by the nearly all black unitards that open the show in front of a black curtain.  For the first nearly twenty minutes, the dancers move like shadows through a dark house, mere whispers.

Slowly, the backdrop rises to reveal shifting shades of light and pieces of the dark unitards disappear to reveal metallic material underneath that illuminates the bodies.  The intensity of the movement and the heavy concentration of the company doesn’t change but the physical shifts  in light and costume reconfigure the space and redefine the mood in subtle, inexplicable ways.

Nearly 90 is a journey – one could say the journey of a life time.  This is the condensed version of the work commissioned for the company that Cunningham made in honor of his 90th birthday last spring.  It would end up being his last work for his company of nearly 60 years.  Whether one would feel such a strong connection had he not passed away shortly after creating the work is a fair question.  But I think its valid to indulge in the coincidence and read into the work a type of parallel to an artistic genius who stripped away darkness and in its place left light.