The Merce Cunningham Dance Company Legacy Tour: Responses from the Community

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company performed in Seattle for the last time on October 27 and 29. We asked members of the community to share their responses to this major artistic event- here is what you wrote:

I looked at it through the eyes of impermanence. I found myself thinking, “this is the last time I’ll have a chance to see this live.” For me it was like visiting a relative on their deathbed. The one one relative you didn’t get to know when they were well, but you now appreciate their stories. -Paul Rucker, musician and visual artist

After the inspiring and engaging conversation at the Project Room on Friday evening, I was curious to see the Saturday night performance. One of the topics that stuck with me from the evening focused on Authorship came to light touching about archiving. David [Vaughan, MCDC Archivist] mentioned that the only thing that really is not able to be archived is the “essence” of Merce Cunningham, however, David remarked that his essence is within the dancers. One of the things that was revealed to me at the performance was just this. The essence of Merce was alive in the movement and expression of the dancers.

The complexity of this performance was astounding, from the intensity of the choreography to the subtleties of the music, to the timeless costumes, and most of all the physical prowess of the dancers.  I felt as though no detail was left unnoticed and each component of the performance fed the next.  I was especially inspired by how each of the three dances performed fit so well together showing the breath of Merce’s choreography from 1968-2003. – Katie Miller, artist and The Project Room volunteer

I kept thinking as Duets unwound all over the stage: it’s like movement in its adolescence, movement discovering itself for the first time, awkward, guileless, and overwrought, the staccato gestures nearly always incomplete — jerked — truncated — executed with uninhibited childish triumph. Like rough-hewn toys wound and spinning out. These are the machines that god built, automatons executing a mystery.

I watched dervishes perform once, spinning nonstop for hours with one hand upturned, the other palm-down, pointed to earth; during the second part of Split Sides I was sure I saw this gesture iterated repeatedly.

Throughout the performance I’m aware of my attention being directed by illusory exaggeration and discreet, excessive detail in the décor and music (the apparent minimalism is misleading). Duets with its matte, sorbet-colored leotards (jonquil, coral, cobalt) that optically exaggerate, fatten, and accentuate every muscular striation of the torso, every heaving curvature of the rib and pointed nipple, is like watching a troupe of polychrome écorché figurines performing a rustic ritual coupling, while musicians hunched in the orchestra pit squeeze sound from ginger root and electronically vibrate popping metal cylinders and plastic drums and manipulate the percussive silk of horsehair and the leather soles of ballet slippers. Décor, costume, sound, movement informed by a roll of the dice: I am being toyed with. I am trying to connect dots and form meanings but am left just out of air and laughing.

RainForest: I could nearly see my reflection in a silver cloud tipping hesitantly off the stage into the orchestra pit. -Amanda Manitach, artist and writer

Sixteen months ago my life became focused on preparing for the Merce Cunningham Legacy Tour. As Coordinator of Cornish’s Merce Cunningham minEvent Project I spent over a year helping to organize workshops, exhibitions, screenings and giving talks drawing on my fifteen year old memories from studying with Merce. Then boom – the company was here. Then gone. There was the screening of Ocean at NW Film Forum, the packed masterclass at Velocity, the unveiling of a sculpture dedicated to Merce on the Cornish campus. . . and the performances. Watching Biped, I got a sinking feeling. I want future generations to see Biped live and in the flesh. It’s a masterpiece of a particular convergence between Merce’s ideas and the digital possibilities of choreography, lighting design and stage space. Yet, at the same time, I’m deeply relieved it’s going to disappear. Merce’s legacy plan insures his work can’t ossify. The view will change. That sums up so much of what Merce was about. His work survives in what he made possible. Would dance look the way it does without him?  There are so many “new” ideas in Biped it’s mind-boggling.

A favorite memory: Robert Swinston’s evocation of Merce in Quartet. It was eerie and poignant. Robert’s been with the company since 1980. During the Q & A, I asked him to try to put into words what Merce and his work had meant in his life. Robert shared that he experienced Quartet as “a tragedy” and that Merce didn’t experience his own work as abstract. He quoted Merce saying that whenever you have two people dancing together, you have a relationship. I’ve always felt Merce’s performances vibrate with imagination. Robert put it well: “The unspecific specificity that is so unique to dance.”

The biggest surprise: that the performances were not sold-out and some of the local press, like The Stranger, didn’t deem the performances worth mentioning. It gave the week an aura of Merce coming home to say good-bye to his small town. Some of the neighbors will never be onboard, and rather than celebrate his incomparable achievement, they’d rather roll their eyes and wonder what all the fuss is about. -Tonya Lockyer, Executive Director, Velocity Dance Center

It was exactly what I expected and surprising at the same time (if those two things can both be possible.) The most breathtaking moment for me was when Robert Swinston got into position for the opening of Quartet in the part Merce choreographed for himself. He looked exactly like Merce did in all the images and video I had seen. It was like he had become Merce, but in an honest way that allowed for him to dance as himself (Robert) by dancing like Merce. What defines the difference between mimicry and tribute? It made me want to find out. -Jess Van Nostrand, The Project Room Founder

I was mesmerized by several works – especially BIPED. The experience felt whole to me with the integration of the music and visuals, sometimes jarring other times seamless. -Jim McDonald, Senior Program Officer, Paul G. Allen Family Foundation

As usual, Cunningham’s work makes me pay attention, both to what I see in front of me, and what I’m not looking at while I see other things. -Sandi Kurtz, Dance Critic, The Seattle Weekly

I was both transported to a soulful experience world and very much in my head. I kept thinking of Heinrich von Kleist’s 1810 essay about marionettes and the grace that comes from being governed only by one’s center of gravity (literally and figuratively). Kleist suggested that humans were too self-conscious to give themselves over to such grace–we had eaten from the Tree of Knowledge–and that only mechanical marionettes (with no consciousness) or gods (endless consciousness) could achieve it. And yet: here were these dancers (so close I could hear their exertion) making it so, illustrating the laws of movement and describing arcs of motion that Merce had envisioned with their incredible human body instruments, grimacing and smiling at each other, soaring and grounded and fully conscious. Embodiments of marionettes and gods, both, one. Dear Herr von Kleist, I wish you could have seen it. – Jenifer Ward, Associate Provost, Cornish College of the Arts, and Off PaperEditor