Critic’s Notebook: Baryshnikov dances into the future of Merce Cunningham’s work

After Merce Cunningham died at his home in New York last summer, his company held an open-mike evening at the choreographer’s studio in Greenwich Village. Members of the company, past and present, spoke sadly of the loss of a father figure whom they barely knew personally but around whom not only their art and careers revolved, but their lives as well.

As one dancer put it, Merce strove to create dance that, like the space that Einstein described, had no center. Yet every time he came on stage, Merce was the center. Your eye went to him and stayed with him. An observer had no choice. Cunningham was simply too commanding.

I thought about that while watching “Roaratorio” over the weekend at Walt Disney Concert Hall, followed by Mikhail Baryshnikov’s special guest appearance Monday night with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in a benefit performance at REDCAT. You can probably guess that even though Baryshnikov has performed relatively little Cunningham choreography, he has the Cunningham charisma.

Baryshnikov danced but three short Cunningham solos in the 35-minute “Occasion Piece2,” which was assembled for this evening. If he was the center of attention, that was not because he tried to steal the show. Nor was it that Misha tried to be Merce.

But at 62, Baryshnikov is the perfect mature Merce dancer. He draws your gaze to the movement of every part of his body, infusing the waving his arms or lifting a chair with expression. The current Cunningham dancers — young and appearing as if genetically fashioned to bring Cunningham movement into being — of course enchant. But the combination of Baryshnikov’s personality, experience and technique, placed at the service of Cunningham, best demonstrates how the work may continue.

The Cunningham company has embarked on an international Legacy Tour to give the world one last look at several key works performed by dancers who learned their technique in the master’s workshop. The tour will end New Year’s Eve 2011 at the Park Avenue Armory in New York. The next day the company, which was formed by Cunningham with his partner, John Cage, as music director in 1953, will be no more.

The realization of “Roaratorio” — Cunningham and Cage at the height of their joint gloriousness — is historically the most important element of this tour. Cunningham created this dance in 1983 as an element of what John Cage described as an Irish circus on James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake.” This many-ringed extravaganza included Cage reading “mesostics,” new poetic texts he produced from Joyce’s last novel. A tape of thousands of sounds Cage had gathered from descriptions in the “Wake” was played over loudspeakers. Over in another “ring” were five irresistible Irish folk musicians. Cunningham’s hourlong dance, in which he provided solos for himself, was the final component.

As originally done, “Roaratorio” was a dense collection of riveting personalities and activities for eye and ear. Against this musical circus foreground, the dancers in the company were an exuberant background performing Cunningham-esque jigs and reels. Only when Cunningham came on stage did the dance suddenly seem the most important thing in the room. “Roaratorio” had not been given since 1987, and the re-creation is very different. It is no longer a circus, but a dance. It no longer has seven centers, or even one. Like Cunningham, Cage and four of the five original Irish performers are no longer alive. The music was not attempted live at Disney. Instead, Cage’s “Roaratorio” was presented in a new eight-track surround-sound installation produced from Cage’s original materials. The dance has been re-created from Cunningham’s notes, video documentation and performers’ memories.

Now the music is background, and these exceptional young dancers, aided by one “Roaratorio” veteran, Robert Swinston, create a stage of multiplicities. Look anywhere you like. When Swinston channels Cunningham’s solos, you sense a ghost in the room.

Some began calling this “Roaratorio” Cunninghams Wake. I’d call it Roaratrios Wake. I’m glad to have it. I watched the three performances last weekend from three different vantage points in Disney and each time the work felt special.

But I missed the personalities. The dance was as advertised, a re-creation rather than a new creation. But the Baryshnikov model leads me to believe that “Roaratorio” might still become a circus.

Cunningham felt that “Roaratorio” was not remountable because the music, made for its specific performers, was too individual. But Baryshnikov’s ability to genuinely re-create Cunningham dance, true to the source, yet also bringing something Baryshnikovian to the table, shows the way for a vocalist to attempt the equivalent for Cage’s text. Other Irish need musicians to be found and, most importantly, won over to Cage and his circus.

And we need the actual circus. “Roaratorio” was to have been danced in the round in Disney, but the Music Center ultimately lost its nerve when ticket sales proved too light. Let us, instead, follow the lead of Cage and Cunningham. They never lost their nerve, and always invented magnificent solutions to the horrendous problems they gave themselves.

All legacies have two parts, the museum part and the evolution part. “Roaratorio” now exists as a meaningful museum piece and lives in so far as dancers are alive and kicking (and boy are they kicking). The next step is to find a way for “Roaratorio” to evolve into something else.

The music for “Occasion Piece2” Monday came from Cage’s “Song Books,” performed by Paul Berkolds, Jacqueline Bobak and Mark Bobak. Thoreau was Cage’s inspiration, and the text in one of the solos was “let private property go.”

This is now the Cunningham legacy dilemma: how to let private property go and the greatness continue. Banking on Baryshnikov’s example could be a start.