Walker Art Center

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Last Dance
A Final Farewell to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company

By Paul Schmelzer

It’s difficult to overstate the depth of the Walker’s relationship with the late Merce Cunningham: his company has performed in Minneapolis on numerous occasions, starting in 1963, when it performed three works at a Walker-programmed night at the Women’s Club, and continuing through Ocean (2008), sited in a granite quarry in St. Cloud, to its final residency and performance here in November. Add to that many commissions, world premieres, and residencies, as well as Cunningham’s participation in the three-part 1998 exhibition Art Performs Life: Merce Cunningham/Meredith Monk/Bill T. Jones, not to mention the Walker’s 2011 acquisition of the Cunningham company’s entire collection of sets, props, and costumes. So when the Merce Cunningham Dance Company visited New York’s Park Avenue Armory for the final performances of its existence—its cessation dictated by the choreographer’s will upon his death in 2009—a number of Walker staff members, including executive director Olga Viso and performing arts curator Philip Bither, were in attendance. Here are their reflections on the New Year’s weekend performances.

Doug Benidt, associate curator, Performing Arts

I could hardly contain my excitement as we walked against current through the rushing Times Square throngs to the Park Avenue Armory on a balmy New Year’s Eve. The momentous conclusion had finally arrived. Situated in the cavernous Thompson Drill Hall, the Event looked elegant, fully considered, and a bit mysterious. With musicians positioned near the stage and surrounding the upper lip of the hall it was as sonically resplendent as it was visually stunning. Three separate stages showed the company in great form and spirit—clearly 100 percent present. Back on the streets I found myself savoring a complete experience, my lingering thoughts, and deep smile—a soul-satisfying final movement from Merce. I didn’t expect less.

Philip Bither, William and Nadine McGuire Senior Curator, Performing Arts

The night was overflowingly full: of memories, expectations, excitement, sadness, and ultimately of joy. New Year’s Eve 2011 and the very final performance, ever, by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. It was like Merce had left us all this amazing gift—$10 performances, a company he personally trained looking better than I had ever seen them, produced in a spectacular space, the monumental Park Avenue Armory, that he had specifically chosen before his death for the occasion.

What a scene coming into the cavernous entryway into the Armory’s Drill Hall, arriving with Walker executive director Olga Viso, her husband Cameron Gainer, and visual arts curator Bart Ryan, bumping into and catching up briefly with some of the finest artists of our time (many Walker-supported friends/creators) who were there to also pay tribute to and witness Cunningham’s brilliance one last time. Trisha Brown, Ralph Lemon, Sarah Michelson, Laurie Anderson (with partner Lou Reed), Steve Paxton, Annie-B Parson (Big Dance Theater), John Jasperse, Tere O’Connor, Chuck Close, Molly Davies, and many others I saw from a distance, only added to the sense of weight of the occasion.

It was like a Cunningham Event For the End of Time (apologies to Messiaen). Merce’s Events have always been prescient mash-ups of his own work, combining choreographic extracts from dozens of pieces drawn from multiple decades. A quiet descended when the dancers first mounted the stages and began. I didn’t recognize most segments, but seeing movement drawn from Walker-commissioned Fabrications (1987) and Ocean (which we produced in the Rainbow Quarry in 2008) as well as his magnificent Nearly 90 (which I had seen when Radiohead and Sigur Rós performed live for the work at BAM in 2003) was fantastic. The three large, raised stages placed in the enormous hall with 1,500 people interspersed between, above, and around them was a perfect kind of three-ring circus solution. I loved standing a few feet off the stairway leading up to one stage, but being able to look over my shoulder at a second stage a bit farther away, and farther still at the third in the distance—with exquisite Merce dancing happening on all of them at once, allowing for three simultaneous but completely different spacial/visual experiences.

A remarkable crew of musicians who have composed or played with Merce in recent decades stretched across a long separate stage and brass players (from TILT brass band) positioned high up in the rafters of the Armory, surrounding the stages and audience sparked still more memories of the surround orchestration of Ocean. Above us, Daniel Arsham’s sculptures, which seemed like molecular models, were lit in a way that made you feel like they were small galaxies drifting in space. Perhaps Merce’s dances this last time were also being performed for the cosmos.

The dancers moved with an intensity, commitment and power that was breathtaking. I tried to put myself in their heads, their performing together one last time after traveling non-stop all over the world during the two-year Legacy Tour, now at this point of finality, of no return. Yet, they seemed to channel all their mixed feelings into the concentration and perfection of their performances, sadness only seeped through when they would step down from the stage staring down at the ground, or when gently comforting one another while crouched down between the stages ready for their next entrance. Of course, a whole range of emotions burst forth from audience and performers alike when, in typical Cunningham fashion, the performance ended and all three stages went silent as suddenly as it had all begun 50 minutes earlier. Then, the cheering, whistling, yelling began for a full five minutes, voices and hands fighting the massive sound-eating space that enfolded us.

This would never happen again, and for I am sure most of us there, will never be forgotten.

Bartholomew Ryan, assistant curator, Visual Arts

Events like this are difficult to talk about because the obvious historic aspect can in some ways become the thing itself, and despite what the dancers or musicians do, you can’t help but concentrate on momentousness rather than movement, per se. Having said that, the space was beautiful and simple: Three open stages scattered amidst the vast Armory drill hall, carpeted pathways between them that the dancers could travel down en route from one performance to another. Then there were the circular rings of lights over each stage and Daniel Arsham’s clouds. The audience could move around the space, or stand on raised platforms. I stayed put in one section near the middle between two stages. I’d like to have watched all the performances, but it was nice to just swivel around and follow different pieces for a while. Every time a dancer left a stage, the audience in that area would give them a round of applause. It felt like part of the score.

Given the moment, for me the most memorable part was watching the dancers, between dances, lying on the side and catching their breath, massaging an injured ankle, or just comforting each other or offering encouragement before going back on stage. Seeing what they could do—and watching them do it for the last time as the Merce Cunningham Dance Company—was a privilege.

Abigail Sebaly, Cunnigham Research Fellow, Visual Arts

When Merce Cunningham arrived in New York in the 1940s, he said that he knew he was home. And this is how the final Merce Cunningham Dance Company performances felt—like a monumental celebration happening on home turf.

Imagine an arena that feels the size of an airplane hangar, just off of Park Avenue. You walk in and there are three stage platforms spread across the field of open space, with carpeted pathways for the dancers. Footlights glow and make the space warm. Look up and Daniel Arsham’s cloud-like clusters are hanging from the towering ceiling. Brass musicians are positioned around the upper perimeter of the room, sending chest-vibrating sound down into the crowd of more than 1,000 people who are positioned between the platforms and milling around stages. The dancers are in top form, though no doubt fatigued, after an extensive Legacy Tour. Sometimes they smile at each other, acknowledging that this will be the last time that they do these oft-repeated sequences together as a company. At the New Year’s Eve shows, some audience members even break out party horns and noisemakers for the final bows.

After so much build-up, the end is swift. And then the hall pours out into the unseasonably warm January night. More than being sad and reflective, I’m certain that Merce would want us to ask, “And now what new work will we do?”

Michèle Steinwald, assistant curator, Performing Arts

The dancers gave the performance of a lifetime! They did not hold back. They simply beamed. Highlights for me were recognizing sections of Ocean (which felt like a prayer or an homage to the last time Minnesota saw Merce) and hearing John King’s new composition (which filled the armory with angelic voices and had the audience watching the ceiling for their origins).

Olga Viso, Walker executive director

Attending the final performance of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company on New Year’s Eve is an event that will live long in my memory and will no doubt be a lifetime highlight. Despite the emotional tenor of the evening, the dancers were in exceptional form—bold, energetic, and poised as they danced fluidly between and across three stages. As visitors, we too were invited to move between stages and take in the 50-minute performance from a variety of vantage points both on the ground and from elevated platforms. The sound, the lighting, the orchestration of music on the ground and from elevated galleries resulted in a tour de force performance from every dimension. Indeed, the brilliant staging of the event in the voluminous space of the Park Avenue Armory stands out, as did the simplicity and elegance of the costumes—leotards with city skylines printed across the dancers’ midriffs. What a way to celebrate and acknowledge a life, a creative career that was at the forefront of innovation until the very end!

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s final performance at the Park Avenue Armory, New York

Merce Cunningham at the Firehouse Theater in Minneapolis, 1977

Generations of Cunningham collaborators

Philip Bither snapped this shot of a historic gathering of performers that included current dancers with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Gus Solomons, Jr., Valda Setterfield, Carolyn Brown, Meg Harper, and Steve Paxton (of Judson Dance Theater and inventor of Contact Improvisation), among others.

Merce Cunningham outside the Walker Art Center green room, 1989