Merce Keeps It Going

By Robert Hilferty

Originally published on Advocate.com April 20 2009 12:00 AM ET

George Balanchine and
Merce Cunningham are the two greatest choreographers of the
20th century -- yet polar opposites in method, style, and
relation to music. But Cunningham is still alive and making new
dances in the 21st century. Being wheelchair-bound hasn't
curbed him at all.

His latest (and
possibly last) work is called
Nearly Ninety

and was premiered on his 90th birthday at the Brooklyn Academy
of Music on April 16. It's a major, evening-length work
featuring music by Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones, Sonic
Youth, and Takehisa Kosugi; costumes by Romeo Gigli, sets by
Benedetta Tagliabue, and video projections by Franc Aleu --
and, of course, the 14 brilliant dancers that make up his
stellar troupe. The place was packed, with the famous and
anonymous, the old and the young, dance and Merce lovers
all.

The silhouette of an
enigmatic structure you can't quite make out fills a scrim
behind which it hides; Asiatic timbres produced by Western
electric guitars and drum-set cymbals hang in the air,
amplified yet delicate. Soon lithe bodies in tight-fitting
white and blue-gray unitards are moving in strange, captivating
ways -- the mesmerizing configurations Cunningham has been
cooking up for decades through the use of chance procedures he
gleaned from his longtime partner and creative collaborator,
John Cage (who died in 1992). For the past 10 years he's
furthered his technique with computer software called
DanceForms.

Cunningham's body
language is pristine and otherworldly -- abstractions of
classic dance positions, hieroglyphic friezes, semi-robotic
gestures, statuesque freeze frames, slo-mo yoga contortions,
ecstatic repetitions, and noble stillness drawn from the animal
kingdom. The dancers perform these in myriad combinations.
Rotating architectural renderings are projected onto the scrim,
one of which looks like an orbiting satellite, adding to the
lunar dimension of the proceedings.

When the scrim
eventually lifts, you see the source of those crazy shadows: a
kind of space station (designed by Tagliabue) fashioned from a
commotion of aluminum tubes, jutting staircases, and thrusting
platforms on which the musicians perform. In spite of the rock
talent, the score is no more "accessible" than the
other electronic or "musique concrète"
scores of Cunningham's Cage days. It's a stream of
noises made from scratching guitar strings, crashing cymbals,
and electronics further transformed through "live
electronics." There's no singing or words, just some
screaming.

As in all Cunningham,
dance is a parallel universe, created independently of the
music flow. At this point in his career, he might have shocked
by matching steps to a melody or beat. No go. Cunningham is too
much of a purist, consistent with a style that's his and his
alone. His dances are of such exquisite, distilled beauty and
tell no story except that of bodies -- their mysteries,
attractions, and interactions. With Cunningham there's always a
kind of apotheosis of human anatomy. His dancers are creatures
of astounding flexibility, balance, and poetry, especially
veteran Holley Farmer and relative newcomer Rashaun
Mitchell.

The audience was on its
feet wildly applauding when Cunningham was wheeled onstage, joy
beaming from his face. He's still a fascinating faun.
Nearly Ninety

may not be a masterpiece, but it is certainly great.