Merce Cunningham & the Impossible

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James Klosty
Merce Cunningham (back center) at his dance studio on Third Avenue, New York City, 1970

Halfway through the first section of RainForest, the work that Merce Cunningham choreographed for his splendid company in 1968, the character initially played by Merce sits peaceably downstage left, while the character originally danced by Barbara Lloyd Dilley leans against him in a position of luxurious repose, her head on his shoulder. A minute earlier, they have prowled around each other in tight circles like dogs, or lions. Great moments of stillness pass, and then the character danced back then by the much younger Albert Reid strides over and sits in close proximity to Merce and Barbara. In a flash, she is kneeling next to him, having transferred her head from Merce’s shoulder to his. Merce squats in alarm next to this new couple for a moment, but the situation is becoming highly fluid.

Within minutes the character danced by the kingly and long-legged Gus Solomons will stride, stiff and purposeful, toward where Barbara is lying and slowly, carefully, get down on all fours and, with the crown of his head, push Barbara right below her shoulder blade, and then underneath her hip bone, until she rolls languorously away from him. He’ll push her again, she’ll roll again, and the initial moment of union between Merce and Barbara will have passed, as moments do in cities and jungles, possibilities arriving and breaking up and reforming again as something else, to our regret or perhaps, sometimes, our joy.

It is sequences of pure emotional transparency like this one, and an ongoing flow of moments of sheer beauty, that kept packed audiences cheering and clapping through endless curtain calls during the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s last Paris season in December. But it was also nostalgia for what was about to be lost forever. Merce Cunningham died on July 26, 2009, at the age of ninety, and, in a stunning act of artistic self-immolation, the creator of some of the twentieth century’s most moving dance works decided that his company should not outlive him. With the backing of the board of trustees of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, he agreed that following his death, the company would embark on one final world tour, and then everything would go. Company, studio, school, musicians, dancers—the entire institution created with such great effort by Merce over a fifty-year period—closed down after a final performance at the Park Avenue Armory on New Year’s Eve. It was the Merce thing to do: evanescence, the laws of chance, and ego, too, always guided him.

Merce developed the guiding elements of his art with his lifelong partner, John Cage, and with members of his circle—among others, the composers Earle Brown, David Tudor, and Morton Feldman, and his frequent collaborators on stage design, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. The group believed that dance, music, and visual arts could coexist together on a stage, but should …

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