Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the Joyce

Saturday night took us to the Joyce where we were fortunate enough to see one of the final performances of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company before it disbands in December. The program consisted of three pieces – CRWDSPCR (1993), Quartet (1982), and Antic Meet (1958).

After hearing about Merce’s company and his influence for so many years it was a thrill to actually see the work performed live. It also felt like a history lesson. It was interesting to see how his work evolved over the years in the course of one night, and it was easy to see how much Merce influenced today’s dance world. The movement vocabulary, the spacing, the costumes, even the choice and role of the music all point to today.

Watching Merce’s company was like watching the urtext of contemporary dance – it is one of the main sources of everything we see today and in a strange way the experience of watching it is like deja vu – you’ve seen it all before but you aren’t sure where. And then you realize you’ve seen it all before everywhere, because this is the origin. It was a pleasure to watch such incredibly skilled, precise and athletic dancers bring this esoteric and abstract work to life with emotion, depth and humor.

I recently read Kyle Gann’s book No Such Thing As Silence, which is all about John Cage and his groundbreaking composition 4’33”. The book discusses Cage’s influence and influences – and briefly touches on his relationship with Cunningham. One of the the things that is exciting about the book is learning about the stew of intellectual and creative activity that was New York in the 50s and 60s.

Watching Antic Meet from 1958 was like a remarkable trip back in time. With music by Cage and decor by Robert Rauschenberg complementing Cunningham’s choreography, it was as if we were magically transported to a time when these ideas about art where new, exciting and challenging. Humor and intellect combine with abstraction and athleticism to create a work that must have been startling to witness at the time.

CRWDSPCR with music by John King and Quartet with music by David Tudor were equally compelling. The abstract soundscapes worked in surprising consonance with Cunningham’s geometric movements.

I’ll be honest, I need to read more to be able to write about this with any kind of authority. I can really only speak to the subjective experience of watching the work for the first time. Confronted with so much non-dance dance and so many artists who resist meaning and interpretation, it was rewarding to see dancers dancing beautifully, articulating a new language and mapping out a new landscape of movement. Even if at times the work seemed more historical than contemporary, it still was delightful to watch.

There are several more performances of the Cunningham Company scheduled over the next 9 months or so, and it concludes with a season at the Park Avenue Armory. If you get a chance to see this legendary company while they’re on tour, don’t miss it.

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