A Farewell to Cunningham

Merce Cunningham Dance Company in "Roaratorio" at BAM, photo by Julieta Cervantes

One of my college professors told me that letting your eyes focus in different ways while watching dance can offer endless enlightenment. Zoom in on something, then zoom out, or let everything blur together and then come into focus.  I tried this approach many times while watching Merce Cunningham Dance Company perform Roaratorio on December 7th at BAM.  Whether everything was crystal clear or swirling together, I was mesmerized from start to finish.  The company’s Legacy Tour comes to an end on December 31st, but this was my very last Cunningham performance.  I was clinging to everything on stage – the colors, the sounds, the dancers’ gorgeous lines and shapes and patterns, the eerily beautiful, disorienting score by John Cage. It was momentous, riveting, and then all too soon, over.

I haven’t enjoyed everything I’ve seen by Cunningham, and the first few performances I saw by his company several years ago left me confused, perhaps even irritated. But with every performance that I’ve watched, I’ve felt more and more certain of two things: 1. These dances are extraordinary and unlike anything else, and 2. Cunningham is the most groundbreaking choreographer of our time, and absolutely brilliant. On the 7th, it was exciting to witness such a monumental performance, and simultaneously heartbreaking to witness the end of the company at a time when I’m so eager to see more of Cunningham, to keep reveling in his brilliance.

Created in 1983, Roaratorio pulls from Irish step dancing and is inspired by James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake”.  This lively, textured work shows couples coming together for festive social dancing featuring rapid footwork fused with dramatic tilts of the torso.  The stage was busy yet clean, with dancers moving at different tempos or joining others to build something new altogether.  John Cage’s richly layered 1979 score, “Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake,” is remarkable on its own, but even more beautiful when paired with Cunningham’s choreography.  Sounds from everyday life – a crying baby, traffic, a leaky faucet – blend with traditional Irish music.  I strained my ears at times to identify the different sounds, to determine where one sound ended and another began. Running through the mesmerizing soundscape was text from “Finnegan’s Wake”, adding yet another dimension. Like Cunningham’s movement, the score was busy but never messy.  It felt like a long, hazy memory – or strands from many memories – that was strikingly reflected in the lighting design by Mark Lancaster and Christine Shallenberg. At one moment the dancers are bathed in sunlight, at another shadows are cast across their faces. Whether encompassing a whole day, a week, or a year, Roaratorio reflects the passing of time.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company in "Roaratorio" at BAM, photo by Julieta Cervantes

Two weeks ago marked the culmination of my six-month internship in BAM’s marketing department, where I was lucky to work with an incredible team of people on the 2011 Next Wave Festival. Feeling a bit of a personal connection to Next Wave and being part of all of the excitement around it, not to mention BAM’s 150th anniversary, I realized how satisfying it was to watch the Merce Cunningham Dance Company – the final company to perform in the Howard Gilman Opera House for the 2011 Next Wave Festival – during their last performances at BAM, ever.  When I reflected on all of the performances I’ve seen throughout Next Wave 2011 (some good, some bad), I could not think of a better or more meaningful final performance than Cunningham.
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4 Responses to A Farewell to Cunningham

  1. Ryan Wenzel says:

    I loved “Roaratorio” as well. I don’t always “get” Cunningham the first time around, but this piece really hit me.

    If you ever want to relive it, some French website has a video of the same cast dancing it here:

    http://www.kewego.fr/video/iLyROoafZEtV.html

  2. Evan Namerow says:

    Thanks, Ryan!

  3. Nancy Dalva says:

    What a wonderful response.!For more about “Roaratorio”–including footage of the orignal cast, archival photographs, and film of the company at Disney Hall in Los Angeles, see this episode (free online 24/7) of “Mondays with Merce,” called “Re: Roaratorio.”
    http://dlib.nyu.edu/merce/mwm/2010-11-01/

  4. Evan Namerow says:

    Thanks, Nancy!

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