At 80, Merce Cunningham, the grand old man of modern dance, finally made it to the New York State Theater in a full-scale engagement with his company. There his dances, old and new, demonstrated his evergreen genius through their quiet but persistent iconoclasm, their sophisticated invention, and their stunning beauty. The 1959 Rune, the 1975 Sounddance, and the 1995 Ground Level Overlay – raptly and robustly performed – seemed like focal points from which to consider Cunningham’s unceasing pursuit of new ways to consider space and human motion. The 1958 Summerspace – danced on this occasion by members of the New York City Ballet, the classical company having done it as a repertory item back in 1966 – served as a delightful, irony-tinged reminder that Cunningham functioned effectively as a crossover choreographer before the term had been coined.
Of the two big works new to New York, I preferred Pond Way, a lyrical, meditative affair – accompanied by a hypnotic Brian Eno score, outfitted by Suzanne Gallo in white harem garb, and danced before a Roy Lichtenstein drop in which the artist’s familiar black dots evoke a world that is nearly all water and sky, a minuscule fishing boat and its rower almost hidden in a low corner. The entire piece suggests that nature is large; man, small – a characteristic Cunningham tenet appropriated from Zen thought. While all of Cunningham’s stage compositions display the odd yet exquisite balance of Asian landscape painting, Pond Way seems to emphasize particularly the subtle harmonies of off-center arrangements.
Biped, by contrast, is assertive and futuristic – the dancers, clad in Gallo’s iridescent tank suits, penetrating into a fathomless, incorporeal, and quite possibly dehumanizing outer space. Abstract and figural projections on front and back scrims, achieved through the latest in computer technology by Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser, are an unwitting throwback to the explorations of Alwin Nikolais half a century ago. Gavin Bryars’s score, with its eerie hollow echoes, contributes to the intergalactic effect. At times, the dancers appear to be flying or diving; at others, they move with the spasmodic angularity attributed to robots, their faces expressionless masks. Toward the finish, they regain their fluidity, even dance in couples (what could be more human than that?), but then ominously start melting down. Could Biped be Cunningham’s nod to the millennium?
The novelty of the engagement – a distinguished component of the Lincoln Center Festival – was Occasion Piece, a duet of sorts for Cunningham and Mikhail Baryshnikov, a great admirer of the choreographer and surefire box-office insurance. Leave it to Cunningham to make the occasion tasteful and wonderfully wry. He placed the pianist Stephen Drury onstage to play John Cage’s Music for Marcel Duchamp, in which a haunting little phrase is doodled, note by note, on stretches of silence, and set the scene with Jasper Johns’s see-through containers inspired by Duchamp’s The Large Glass (originally used for Walkaround Time). Cunningham, whose range of motion is drastically restricted by the infirmities of age, was so potent in his guise of benign wizard, he nearly upstaged the merely middle-aged Baryshnikov, who devotedly executed the impossibly torqued phrases assigned him. As their bodies related obliquely in the space, these two legendary artists seemed to acknowledge each other with the love and respect of mutual – and indefatigable – toilers in the field.