Merce Cunningham memorial ‘Events’ in New York


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Wednesday afternoon and evening, dozens of dancers young and old, leading lights of American avant garde music and a large milling public invaded New York’s Park Avenue Armory to remember Merce Cunningham. The startling 1881 structure, built to house the Seventh Regiment in Tiffany splendor (those were the days), is now a massive and inventive art and performance space.

But even it could barely contain “Events in Honor of Merce -- Memorial,” a five-hour tribute to the work and life of the legendary dancer and choreographer, who died at 90 in August. Throughout his seven-decade career, Cunningham treated all containers, including the human body, as challenges. And the memorial was the result of a lifetime of stretching and expanded boundaries, of rethinking everything in and about dance from the ground up -- way up.


The program followed Cunningham’s late practice of staging his “Events” circus-like on three simultaneous stages. These dance cornucopias include bits and pieces from different works taken out of context and presented with different music, decor and costumes than used with the original dances. Wednesday, musicians were placed on a ledge up high and they flooded the room with sound. Above them was an art work that Cunningham made last year by inking the wheels of his chair and rolling it over a large canvas.

Along with “Event (2009),” current and past members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which was founded in 1953, youngsters from a number of New York schools and Cunningham’s studio class for teenagers performed a selection of excerpts from dances made between 1967 and 2002. The one exception was a very early piece, “Totum Ancestor,” which Cunningham and his life partner, composer John Cage, devised in 1942, shortly after Cunningham had set out on his own as a choreographer after dancing with Martha Graham.

There was inevitably a lot of great dance and dancing. But also, inevitably, this was not exactly a dance occasion. Frankly, what made me drop everything and fly to New York at the last minute for the memorial was the announcement of the music lineup, which was a once-in-a-life-time gathering. La Monte Young, the otherworldly inventor of Minimalism, began the program singing a welcoming raga with two colleagues, which was pure vibratory magic. Five hours later, Meredith Monk sang a little of her “Porches,” which is something Cunningham asked her to do from time to time in the ‘70s as a way to send his audiences home transported. In between, in a steady stream of changing improvisatory ensembles, Cunningham’s regular musicians were joined by a number of striking composers and performers, Pauline Oliveros and Christian Marclay perhaps being the best known.

But the occasion wasn’t really about music either. Nor, for that matter was it about Merce (yes, everyone called him and calls him Merce). What distinguished Cunningham from all other great choreographers was the degree of his inclusiveness. He invented dance movements that were modern and new, but even more revolutionary was the way he placed them in the world in which we lived.

Cunningham could never take his eyes off the street, and the dynamic that we all witness everyday is what he embraced. And he proved that music, costumes, set designs, lighting and sound could all exist independently on stage, just like they do in our lives, so long as there is a general shared aesthetic.

On Wednesday no one could actually watch everything, since people hovered closely around the stages. But dance was all around us. Music was all around us. And people were all around us. The audience could sit and watch and listen, or people could wander and socialize and have a glass of wine while paying a compliment to an art-world luminary such as Jasper Johns.


Every so often, something caught the crowd’s attention and suddenly everyone looked or listened as a group. That occurred when a recording of Cage playing “Cheap Imitation,” his reworking of Satie’s opera about the death of Socrates, was played to accompany Cunningham’s 1970 dance “Second Hand.” The music haunted the huge room while dancers slowly, eloquently came to life.

And everything stopped for a performance of Cage’s silent piece, “4’33”.” Cunningham alumni held still poses for the allotted time and just the right amount of titillating ambient noise, including sirens on Park Avenue, leaked out. This was the closest that program came to mournfulness and that wasn’t very close.

Instead, like all meaningful memorials, this was not about the dead but the living, about what Merce left behind for us to use.

Shortly before he died, Cunningham devised a legacy plan. The company will make a two-year world tour, his catalog will be digitized with the latest technology and then the Merce Cunningham Dance Company will close and a trust will manage the legacy.

But if Wednesday is any indication, Merce’s spirit is here to stay.

-- Mark Swed