Merce Cunningham at Mass MoCA

I just returned from seeing the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s performance of Biped. I am still speechless.

Let me state, first-off, that I believe this review, orally if not visually, is an inferior alternative to Saturday evening’s performance at Mass MoCA. The company performed, in conjunction with Jacob’s Pillow, a piece from 1958 entitled Summer Space, and a new work, Biped. From the very first deranged, out-of-tune piano note, I was under his hypnotic spell. Everything is about the visual. Here, Cunningham indulges you, but not too much. It is all about striking the right balance between reality, the surreal and the imagination.

Cunningham goes beyond restrictive assumptions about movement. This being modern dance, the concentration here is on each dance step, and physical movement of the dancer. This method allows Cunningham to show you the beauty in the sheer intricacy of every muscle movement. Each movement can stand on its own, independent of the others. A composite of these independent movements make up the whole.

Cunningham’s style is very similar to the minimalist movement that developed in modern art where each and every color in Mondrian’s works, for example, are emphasized to show off their intrinsic qualities. Nothing is decorated or embellished. Flatness and simplicity are what is important. Red is red is red. Red is not rose, crimson or scarlet. The music of John Cage complements this; individual notes and the sounds behind them are what matter. Each musical tone is emphasized in tandem with every gesture of the dancer. In both pieces, Cunningham’s choreographic skill is astounding, and the result is visual lyricism. Each time you are about to feast on an image, he introduces another visual deception to throw you off balance. He is a genius at incorporating what one would perceive as disjointed artistic elements together to form something so wholesome and piercingly beautiful.

Biped was created and first performed in 1999. The decor in Biped explores the possibilities in new animation technology, as the movement of the dancers was transposed into digital images. Here, Cunningham delves into the exploration of virtual choreography. While the dancers are onstage, Cunningham juxtaposes their movement and that of laser-like, 3-D digitally processed images of the dancers. He introduces the audience to digitally enhanced images of shapes and figures, such as rods, lines and various planes. Building blocks of movement sequences can be stored for use in developing design chunks. The overlapping views provide a way to conceptualize the interrelationship of time and space. He can zoom in and out of the checkerboard stage space or tilt the screen to see movement from any angle.

The stage is not the sole dimension within which the dancer is confined. Cunningham is also trying to demonstrate that the limbs of his dancers are as lithe and plastic-like as the rotation and movement of rods or sticks. The dancer is as precise and solid as these objects. The amazing thing about the philosophy is this: though restricted by certain physical constraints, the dancer is still able to retain his or her grace, elevating it to an art form. Biped brought tears to my eyes. I discovered what was so elegant about the human body: the human body struggles to attain perfection, yet it is always held down by the very imperfections inherent in humanity.

For Merce Cunningham, dance has never had to refer to anything other than itself. Adhering to his singular, eclectic philosophy, he has created works with humor and beauty, astounding visual imagery and wild kinesthetics, with music ranging from funk/rock to classical. Over the past 40 years, Cunningham has concerned himself primarily with kinesthetic exploration. He has long been expanding the possibilities of the dancer’s body in space; his renowned choreography has continued to develop throughout his distinguished career.

At the end of the performance, along with a curtain call, we were graced with the master’s presence. Merce’s presence on stage is a wonder to behold. Arthritic, disheveled, birdlike in his obliqueness, yet very direct and distinguished, Merce is, like his choreography, a masterpiece of juxtapositions. With his shock of hair, he looks like a mad scientist. Cunningham is now in his 70s and discovery remains on his mind. Indeed, everyone left the performance having discovered something inexpressibly profound. I know that the impact of this art form brought me closer to grasping a definition of humanity. That is exquisite.

The entire experience was too intense for me. It is impossible to remain indifferent to Merce Cunningham. One is either an admirer or detractor and so it has been for the last fifty years. Cunningham’s choreography has no story, theme or subject and is rarely supported by music, so his style is not for everyone: this is understandable. But he has demonstrated that dance has moved on.