La plus ça change, la plus ça change....

reposted on Viola Farber's birthday


Merce Cunningham at his studio at  498 3rd Avenue     photo: James Klosty

PARIS--My last conversation with Merce Cunningham was at his apartment. There he graciously held what was in effect a series of farewells, courteous to the end. That afternoon I read this  to him, from the Tao te Ching:

Only he who is willing to give his body for the sake of the world is fit to be entrusted with the world. Only he who can do it with love is worthy of being the steward of the world.

 “This was you, Merce,” I said.

“Yes,” he said.

For the past two years, on the Legacy Tour that began after his death,  his dancers have been the stewards of his world--the world of his dances, so various, so richly populated with all manner of beings, and all manner of things, as well.

Over time, Cunningham used his dancers as his every element: animal, vegetable, and mineral. Non-narrative as it may be, his choreography is a kind of story theater, teeming with images composed, in their entirety, by the people on stage at any given moment.
    "Ocean"                                                                                            ©Hugo Glendenning

Over the years, since he began his own company in 1953, there have been over 110 such dancers. They remain in the work in palimpsest, dancing underneath the dancers who have followed them in the roles that were first made for them, or that they inherited and then passed on to others.

There they are, and there they were, and here they are. There have been many Cunningham seasons in Paris. At the Théâtre de l'Odéon, the Théâtre de la Ville, the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, at the Palais Garnier, at the Centre Pompidou, in the Cour de Palais Royal,  and then all “autour de Paris” as well.

La plus ça change, la plus c’est la même chose.

Because here in the coupole studio Robert Swinston is banging a drum and snapping his fingers, and the dancers are tilting and curving in their warm-up part of their class. Some have danced in the company for years, some worked with Cunningham only as members of the Repertory Understudy group. Of everyone in the room, only Robert Swinston danced on stage with him--although here in Paris too is Carolyn Brown, his onstage partner for twenty years. It was here in Paris that she danced with the company for the last time, and almost forty  years later, she is back, visiting old haunts, and revisiting the work she graced.

It is here that the company will dance its last evening of repertory, flying home right after to prepare for a final run of Events--an amalgamation of excerpts from a broad range of work of their own choosing and that of Robert Swinston--at the Park Avenue Armory in New York. They will be disposed on three stages, with runways in between, and the audience free to roam about them. Then it will be over, the clock will strike midnight, and like the glass slipper, only their unitards will be left behind.

These dancers will scatter, as the dancers always have, though never before all at once.  At times especially in his later years it seemed Cunningham regarded them with the same open interest with which he might regard a flock of pigeons. Some would fly away, others would land. Now they will take one last great sweep around the room, and disperse.
         "Beach Birds"   with Michael Cole at front                                     ©Michael O'Neill
These are the bodies Cunningham  used as a painter uses pigment, building up the fluid canvases that were his choreography. Pigment with a will and a life of its own, of course, but perhaps that is just as true for painters, as they step back to see what effect the paint has made with itself. Green has a life of its own, and blue, and violet....

He also used them as elements. For instance, in Cunningham’s  dance called “Loosestrife, “ the dancers were the very plants of the title,  rooted on stage, bending as grasses do. Tilt towards the sun,  bend in the breeze, gone with the wind. In a dance called "Five Stone Wind," one group of people  transmitted a way of moving to another group of people. But wait! Perhaps the dancers are also the stones, and perhaps they are also the wind. Sometimes, of course, they were animals--cats, wild beasts circling prey, and birds, birds, birds. In "Beach Birds," they are the setting, and the creatures within, human and avian alike.
                                 ©James Klosty

Merce was  himself protean--and so he regarded other bodies. He didn’t tell the dancers what they were. He told them what to do. He gave them the movement.

They were free to make things up, if they had the need. As later in the theater, so were we.

But--to use a phrase Robert Swinston, still teaching this class in front of me--uses all the time: Here’s the thing.

Merce knew what they were. When he choreographed his dances, he knew what he had in mind. The work carried his intention in its very architecture and pacing.

Now that we have access to his notes, we can check our selves--see if what we saw in the work is what he put in there. It turns out to have a remarkable transparency.

Take “Ocean”,  a dance which screened here on Sunday, with Charles Atlas in town to introduce this last of his Cunningham films. It begins with a man who enters the stage --which is a perfect circle--and makes an alphabet with his feet and body. A woman enters next, and does the same. Together, they have taught us the language of the piece, but also they have set the tone. They are arriving some place, and they seem to be discovering it, and they also seem to be alone. Who are they? He is Prospero, and she, perhaps, is Miranda.

Look in the notes. It says, “As if washed up on shore.”

Further into the dance--whose couples are dedicated, with the exception of one man (originally and still danced by Robert Swinston) who has a number of partners. One pair is so exceptionally ardent they could break your heart. Originally Frédéric Gafner  (now known as Foofwa d’Imobilité) and Kimberly Bartosik; in the film, Daniel Squire and Jennifer Goggans. At one point, she kneels on the floor, all the way across from him on the world that is the stage. He is turned away from her. She races towards him, her dress floating. He turns just in time, and catches her up in his arms as she wraps her legs around him. If there is something more romantic than this moment in any dance, I’ve never seen it.
Merce Cunningham rehearsing "Ocean" in 2007   (Robert Swinston partial view to left)  ©Hugo Glendinning

LOOK at the notes. “She clings to him for dear life,” it says.

This is what we do. We cling to things. But you can’t cling to dance.

You can hold it in your mind as best you can, you can summon it up from performances past even as it keeps painting itself, night after night in the theater. A continuous canvas, repainting itself.

And now it vanishes.

The work after this week will reside in a kind of perpetual present, or continuous past, in equilibrium, constant, whole, there to be visited in the mind.

                Jeannie Steele in "Biped"                                                             ©Tony Dougherty
And then in whatever performances other companies or projects will offer. Will it be the same? Of course not. Was it ever really? Perhaps not.

One night some time ago, Viola Farber, one of Cunningham’s originals, was in the opera house audience at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, watching an excerpt from Cunningham's galvanic “Winterbranch,” newly revived for an Event.

     Cunningham in "Winterbranch"      ©Max Waldman

“Was that what ‘Winterbranch’ was like?” I asked her.

“It wasn’t the “Winterbranch,” she replied. "But it was a version of 'Winterbranch,' and it was beautiful." It’s something to think about.

La plus ça change, la plus ça change.

I saw her together with Cunningham one last time after that. He was seated on a bench, cane in hand, in the upstairs lobby at City Center, a theater in New York, and she walked over leaning lightly on her cane. His face lit up, and he reached for her free hand, and kissed it. There they were. Hand in hand, the stewards of the world.
Viola Farber and Merce Cunningham rehearsing "Crises" (1963).  Photo: John Wulp.

 Special thanks to James Klosty and Hugo Glendinning
©Nancy Dalva 2011