Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Farewell Legacy Tour

Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Farewell Legacy Tour, 11/6/11, 7 pm, Walker Art Center

A person at the bottom of a cliff

From the parking garage, I headed inside and proceeded into the line of well-dressed, smiling Minneapolitans eager to witness an historic performance of a legendary artist and his company. It had been a while since I had been a part of the dance world myself, and although I had seen dozens of company performances, I had never once seen the work of Merce Cunningham performed on stage. I came with no expectations other than to feel once again the passion of artistic expression radiating out to me from human bodies in motion.

The first piece was a work from 1998 entitled “Pond Way,” set to an atmospheric soundscape by Brian Eno, designed to be played from three CD players at different locations throughout the theater. I expected a “pond way” to be very natural, calming, pure, but the scene created by the dancers’ recurring movements against the grey dots of a Lichtenstein backdrop offered a melancholy mood that, together with the digital ambience, did create a comfortable serenity. The flowing flutter of sheer costumes that continued to move, even as the dancers remained still for a moment, resembled the ripple of water that is never completely at rest. The Lichtenstein landscape here is quite different from the woman at WAM. Only tones of gray and white are used and the only recognizable object is a small boat cut off at the very edge of the left corner of the backdrop. This cutting off of this image is mirrored by the composition of Merce Cunningham’s dances. There seems to be no beginning, middle, or end in each of the works, and “Pond Way” ends simply as the last dancer leaps offstage, leaving us with the image of only part of her body, cut off by the wing curtain as the lights go down.

RainForest, the second piece from 1968, started off with a thrill, but of course a calming thrill, not a thrill to make one get too excited, but a thrill that somehow kept us in our seats. This thrill was the experience of Andy Warhol’s shiny, pillow-like balloons that either hung from the ceiling, suspended in midair, or traveled through space across the stage and even out into the audience at a very slow speed, as if remote-controlled spaceships or something. These silver clouds floating around in combination with the music, the plant patterns cast down in light on the floor and the very dissonant, electronic sounds created yet another strangely synthetic scene of nature. I expected to hear rain falling and animal calls in a rain forest, yet the sounds were like robots communicating. The dancers resembled insects in their random movements and short attention spans, occasionally coming into contact with one another but expressing no outward emotion. Dancers never intentionally touch the clouds, and the clouds rather get in the way of what the dancers are doing, but they seem not to notice. There is a mysterious quality of every object in this piece, and a sense that they all (the clouds and the dancers and the sounds) are coexisting in an environment natural to them all.

The final piece was an early work entitled Antic Meet from 1958, a multi-part play with décor and beautiful fluffy dresses by Robert Rauschenberg and so much silliness in the gestures and timing of things. The props included a movable door, a fur coat, and a sweater with four sleeves that, as one can imagine, had the crowd bursting with laughter as one dancer tried to find his way out of it. Four musicians performed a score by John Cage, a minimalist work that added to the comic timing. This dance again ended without an ending—the curtain came down as the dancers were still moving, flustering about, adding on and moving up in a line they had made, out of breath and unfinished as the curtain cut off the scene.

I had always heard that Merce Cunningham helped to bridge visual art and dance, even music, but I did not know the extent of this until I had seen his work live. Each piece was, for me, comparable to the experience I have with works in an art gallery. Like I have said, there was no beginning, no middle, and hardly an end. I felt myself wanting more at the end of each one, but no more than the incomplete, slightly confused or empty feeling I get after stepping away from a painting in a gallery. There is no closure, no finale, but I accept the ending just a few seconds after departing from the piece of art. I never thought I would have this experience with a dance. Merce Cunningham. He was a special guy. That I can now say for sure.