The taqueria where I usually eat before events in Berkeley has taken rather charmingly taken to handing out fortunes with their burritos. Thursday before last mine said “An interesting musical opportunity is in your near future.” That’s always good to know. Then I headed to Moe’s, my favorite bookstore, to kill some time. Of course I ended up buying more books, which is something I really don’t need to do. But I had intended to buy some plays by Wallace Shawn after hearing him read several weeks ago, and I found some, and since you never know what you’ll find at a used book store I also picked up an attractive hardbound edition of The Golden Bowl, which I’ve been meaning to re-read since I haven’t read it since I was thirteen, which was so long ago it’s as if I haven’t read it at all. So I was feeling elegiac and subject to chance when I finally was in my seat for the opening stand of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s Legacy Tour.
MCDC had a long association with Cal Performances and I know I’ve seen them before, though I couldn’t tell you offhand how many times. I don’t recognize the dancers from year to year, the way I do with Mark Morris. This is MCDC’s final tour before they disband (Cunningham died in 2009, aged 90). I thought this meant that Cunningham, in a final and full embrace of the concepts of chance and impermanence, was simply dissolving his life’s work, which I found very moving – many of us talk a lot about the transitory nature of existence and the mutability of life and so forth, but secretly we all hope that future generations will pore over any scrap we leave behind, the way classics scholars pore over any little fragment left by centuries-dead poets celebrating their brief moment on earth. It was almost unsettling to me that Cunningham would renounce that common human wish to retain power over the future, as if he were the Cincinnatus of dance.
It turns out that I hadn’t quite understood correctly: although the MCDC is being disbanded (which is perhaps the final lesson Cunningham learned from Martha Graham), there is a legacy plan in place to continue his work (you may read about it and support it here). And presumably some of this final generation of dancers trained by Cunningham will continue the apostolic succession in their own creative life.
The first piece was Pond Way from 1998, set to Brian Eno’s New Ikebukuro (for three CD players – I wonder if the CD player as musical instrument is on its way to becoming like the ondes martenot), with a backdrop of Lichtenstein’s Landscape with Boat (so large it looked almost abstract, with the tiny boat in the lower left-hand corner, which gave it a very Japanese woodblock-print sort of look). My memory of this is of a very quiet, flowing dance, that was almost hypnotic – I was very surprised when it ended to find that half an hour had gone by; I would have guessed we’d only been watching for ten or, max, fifteen minutes.
During the intermission the woman on my right and I ran down the list of collaborators (Eno, Lichtenstein, Cage, Rauschenberg, Cunningham himself) and tried to remember which were still living. She said, “I have the feeling tonight that I’m communing with the dead,” and I think that spirit of appreciation and farewell was common in the audience. It does seem as if a major chapter in the history of American avant-garde creativity is now closed, though of course these things just metamorphose and never really end. Incidentally New World Records has issued a fascinating ten-disc set of music composed for Cunningham’s dances. I’ve just started listening to it, but the sounds really evoke a certain era – I put a disc on and am in a darkened, quiet theater, watching people in leotards move in a way that is unexpected and yet completely right. I haven’t even looked at all the contents yet; but there’s of course lots of Cage, and Feldman, and some Christian Wolff (who was there Thursday night, performing Cage).
After the first intermission came Antic Meet from 1958, set to Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra, with décor by Robert Rauschenberg. The décor must be the props used: a chair strapped to a dancer’s back, a sweater with four arms and no neckhole. There were lots of witty references to traditional dance steps. The epigraph to the work, quoted in the program, was Ivan Karamazov’s “let me tell you that the absurd is only too necessary on earth.” Indeed the dance did evoke a spirit-lifting attitude of absurdity.
After the second intermission we had the third and final piece of the evening, Sounddance from 1975. The title is from Finnegans Wake, so there was the feeling that the program had been designed to reference many of Cunningham’s touchstones: Joyce, Cage, Rauschenberg. . . . This was a more vigorous piece than the other two. But after about half an hour (all the dances were about half an hour) it too ended. The audience gave the performers an enthusiastic and affectionate ovation. And then the lights came back up and it was all over, so we all had to go home.