Merce Cunningham’s Nearly Ninety at BAM

Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Nearly Ninety, photo by Stephanie Berger

On his ninetieth birthday last Thursday, Merce Cunningham offered the dance world Nearly Ninety, his newest evening-length work presented at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Cunningham redefines – or perhaps moves beyond – what it means to be a choreographer. Since the 1950s he has been utilizing chance operations to create his works. The movement, music, sets, and costumes are produced in isolation and not assembled until the dress rehearsal, so that the outcome is a surprise to everyone involved in the creative process. Furthermore, chance operations are used to determine movement sequences: Does the leg swing front or back? How many times do the dancers jump? Should the dancer turn left or right? A roll of dice determines the answers. The outcome of Nearly Ninety is reflective of the risk involved in using chance operations – sometimes the artistic components just don’t cohere. The piece is frustratingly disconnected, and some poor artistic choices are nearly impossible to ignore.

A brief overview of each artistic contribution illustrates the disparate creative forces that come together to ill effect. The music, performed live by John Paul Jones, Takehisa Kosugi, and Sonic Youth, consists of screeching guitars, eerie electronics, and abrupt noises made by a variety of objects rolling on a metal pan. While the sounds are from outer space, Franc Aleu’s video design is firmly planted here on earth. The organic visual projections include a slowly falling drop of water that creates a ripple across the stage, and gently morphing shapes that include tree roots and rays of sun. These natural images are completely overwhelmed – as are the dancers – not only by the music, but also by Benedetta Tagliabue’s clunky, futuristic set. The massive structure initially appears in silhouette, with the musicians hidden on various platforms. When fully lit, it looks like a distorted, damaged chunk of Epcot with a steel stairway slicing through it. Space suits might be an appropriate match for such an industrial mess, but Romeo Gigli’s black and white unitards are sleek and simple – refreshing to the eye, but sadly plagued by the set.

photo by Andrea Mohin

Cunningham’s choreography is filled with his typical off-balance tilts, bends, push-pull tensions, and spins. Often working in pairs, the dancers are committed and focused throughout a variety of physically demanding feats that play with timing. A torso curls at a snail’s pace, followed by quick jumps around the stage’s perimeter. A dancer enters the stage in a run, only to halt and then slowly bend one leg while extending an arm. The lack of flow is irritating and the unpredictability becomes predictable. But more frustrating is Tagliabue’s obtrusive set behind the dancers. Besides serving as a platform for the musicians, it has no purpose or relation to the movement. It simply takes up space and detracts attention from the dancers.

Like much of Cunningham’s work, Nearly Ninety is deliberately unemotional – or at least it appears that way. The dancers’ stoic expressions and vacant personalities (with the exception of Holley Farmer, whose dancing is always overflowing with joy and delight) seem unnatural, almost forced. Perhaps the work would be more powerful and transcendent if it included an ounce of genuine feeling.

Cunningham’s use of chance operations in dance is an innovation, and his impact on the artistic world is undeniable. Yet, chance operations are as much about the process as they are about the product. Simply completing the process – an experiment whose final result is anyone’s guess – is commendable, but the chances of a good outcome are fifty-fifty.

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4 Responses to Merce Cunningham’s Nearly Ninety at BAM

  1. Pingback: MERCE AT 90 at Swan Lake Samba Girl

  2. mc says:

    couldn’t agree more. the choreography, while great, was completely overshadowed by the terrible music and set. a miserable waste of 90 minutes.

  3. TaraB says:

    Which night did you go? I saw the Sunday matinee and found the music, lights, and dance riveting! Especially when the dancer mounted the platform with the musicians–incredible tension and even pathos at that moment. Suddenly she had added a vertical dimension to what had been almost exclusively 2 dimensional up to that point. By chance the music was beautiful at that moment too (and would no doubt have lined up differently on the night you saw it). I didn’t like the noisy bits where people were flailing on instruments, but the electronic parts were exquisite (as were the gradually morphing costumes)!

  4. Pingback: Merce Cunningham (1919 – 2009) « Dancing Perfectly Free

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