Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago. Here, Eugene Lim revisits the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s final performance.
CONAN: How do you obliterate space and time?
Mr. JONES: Well, you know, sometimes, when I’ve had one tequila too many and I’m lying on the floor, I feel pretty obliterated in space and time. No, but I don’t think that’s what [Merce] meant.
—Bill T. Jones remembering Merce Cunningham, on NPR.
On the few last nights of 2011, I saw a series of performances that so moved and changed me that I thought to myself, This is the greatest experience of art I’ve ever had!
And yet because I didn’t have the training or the critical terms to note the details of what I’d seen—and even if I’d had them I’m not sure the soft muscles of my memory would have retained them—I have only emotional and murky impressions. A dance performance I know I once felt was a pinnacle of experience I now can only vaguely hold in mind, like a summer in a foreign city where you carried out a painless and shimmering affair—that is, something idealized and maybe romantic but shrouded and perhaps no longer real.
These were the final dance performances of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, on the nights of December 29th, 30th, and 31st in 2011. Prior to his death, Merce Cunningham created a remarkably prescient and meticulous legacy plan which, after his passing, would send the company on a two-year world tour. It would culminate with final performances in New York. Then, the company would disband.
So even prior to (or outside of) the physical dance, there was already a parallel conceptual-art project that was an intense durational-performance work, an almost literal dance with death, a mourning ritual, an explosion of life within death, and an enlightened embracing and letting go of time all at once.
Cunningham famously said, “You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive. It is not for unsteady souls.”
Silas Riener, a magnificent Cunningham dancer, wrote on his Facebook wall the night of the 31st, “forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit,” Latin for “perhaps it will please us one day to remember these things,” which gives a hint about the work of dancers: that unfathomable trial of performing, enduring, and then finishing.
An attempt to revisit the fleeting moment of those nights seems both poignant and perverse, utterly human despite its obvious impossibility. Cunningham perhaps would have admonished against it, but I will tell you a few things about it.
The performances were held in the cavernous space of the Park Avenue Armory, on three stages underneath suspended white botryoidal clusters, perhaps harkening back to Warhol’s floating silver pillows, only no longer playful and teenagery but fixed, celestial, perhaps fractal, perhaps tumorous. The dancers performed an “anthology” of past Cunningham choreography, less a greatest hits or retrospective than an artful collage à la Rauschenberg, or maybe they were, as one critic called them, the proverbial flashes before the eyes prior to the end. Cunningham created his own sui generis “vocabulary” so that watching the performance became somewhat like speaking in tongues: a spirit enters you, and you have momentary fluency in an alien language. If there’s a narrative to be found, its nature is such that you understand it only while you understand it. At least this is how I always felt my cognition of the performance was: momentary, beyond.
As always, the space—its direction, entering and leaving it—was wise and composed and organic and undelineated. With multiple stages and without fixed seats, the audience wandered, seeing what it saw and not seeing everything. “There is no front, at least not in the traditional sense,” said Cunningham. “Any place you are sitting at is the front.”
Despite the inherently rarefied and elitist quality of seeing modern dance (like opera or Michelin-star dining or equestrian sports or other conspicuous cultural consumption, there are both subtle and brazen obstacles to entry), there was something universal, or at least elemental, in Cunningham’s choreography. It required no knowledge of historical narratives and often lacked even vague intimations of a story. All that was truly required was empathy and a sense of one’s own body: its limitations and possibilities, its strengths and its weaknesses, and also its Platonic ideals. Of the latter, the final Cunningham dancers seemed to embody them completely. They were so precise and crisp and strong and freely risking and deeply in the dance. Despite all the barriers that stop people from “getting” Cunningham, when one sits and actually sees the dance, there can be instant recognition.
(When he was eighty, Merce Cunningham’s brother asked him, Merce, when are you going to make something the public likes?)
On the final night, by chance, I sat near David Vaughan, the longtime dance archivist for the company, whom I recognized. His job title is a wondrous paradox. We both wept at the beauty and finality of that night, and we were far from alone in doing so.
I mean to say: not only was the performance fleeting but, for me, even the understanding of the dance’s charms were momentary. It left a lasting and deep impression, but the very comprehension of it was dazzling and brief.
I’ve spent the morning trying to impossibly revisit the last nights of 2011. I hold on to shadows (even the holding is momentary), remembering movements in space and time that have now disappeared. Cunningham: “The dance is an art in space and time. The object of the dancer is to obliterate that.”
Eugene Lim is the author of the novels Fog & Car, The Strangers, and Dear Cyborgs.