I keep on returning to a thought that recurred several times during our post-performance Q&A sessions: that Cunningham’s pieces create worlds unto themselves. This seems true in terms of composition—many posts here have discussed their landscape qualities, with several independent parts that sometimes seem to come together in dialogue. But I think there is also a more profound and immaterial way in which the company connected with one another, as well as with those who had danced this work before us.
While we had rehearsed steadily for months leading up to the performance, everything seemed to come alive in a new way while on stage. It seemed that until then we had just been laying the groundwork, patching together circuits until we finally hit the switch on Friday. Part of this was undoubtedly the grandeur of the gym space, the presence of the audience, the mere fact of performance. And yet something felt very different from the dress rehearsals on Thursday (which were in the same space and had a small audience) to the performances on Friday, and from other shows I have done in the past. There was a certain magic, a wonderful feeling that I have since tried (largely in vain) to revisit and recapture.
One essential aspect of this seemed to be the tremendous focus demanded by the work, and brought by the dancers. Given the complexity of Merce’s movement, we had to know it well enough to be able to pour ourselves into the world—to pull ourselves out of our whirring heads and give something of ourselves to each other, and, if not to be expressive in the narrative sense, then at least to be present. I did not predict how well and precisely things seemed to have come together, but I think from the moment that we stepped on stage—walking out like a sports team that had just been announced—we knew that we were stepping into something very special. Though we had spoken at some length about their time in the company, Jen and Meg’s lectures and presences strongly conveyed the sense of great privilege that we had to carry this work on our bodies, and to access a tradition that spanned generations.
Emily mentioned that our reconstruction ultimately begged the question, “does dance die?” As someone who spent most of my childhood dancing the work of Petipa, this question seemed startling. Of course companies will continue to seek to mount Merce’s work, and his influenced will continue to be felt and discussed in new pieces that are made. Yet my brief exposure to the company’s history indicates that something remarkable has been lost in the world of dance, and in the lives of so many individuals. Practice and evolution were vital parts of Merce’s work. Were Cunningham to be as codified and institutionalized as classical ballet, his work would certainly not “live” in the same sense as before.
Still, the dancers and now teachers who were touched by Merce breathe life into his legacy through their continued work with his and their own pieces. I know that Cunningham’s work will also continue to live on, in some very small way, in me—from the class exercises that have made their way into my morning routine, to a new hunger and appreciation for modernism in dance. I am so lucky and grateful to have been touched by that magic, and to step out of our performance much different (and differently!) than before. If Merce’s adage that no two people walk the same can be extended to how we regard and approach movement generally, then I am certainly a different person for having, however briefly, entered his world.