A Centennial Conversation: ‘Night of 100 Solos’

Night of 100 Solos, Merce Cunningham centennial performance at the Barbican, London, England

What happens when a pioneer turns 100? Apparently, a lot. Merce Cunningham’s would-be 100th birthday saw the monumental effort of three performances across three cities, each featuring 100 solos from the choreographer’s repertoire. Former Cunningham company members staged the solos and composed them into three distinct wholes, propagating a future for the technique unlike any effort the dance community has seen, neither since Cunningham’s death in 2009 nor for a centennial of any of his contemporaries. London, New York, and Los Angeles each recruited local visual artists and musicians to develop a projection/set design and score, respectively. Lucky to have writers in all three cities, we’ve edited and published excerpts from their conversation after the shows:

Some exposition

Oluwaseun S. Olayiwola: The lights brightened onstage at the Barbican Theatre, London. There they were, all 25 of them. They looked like Skittles, only missing the central ‘S.’ Immediately the dancers scattered offstage, few dancers remained, showing the fluidity of their distal points and the sturdiness of their centers. A dancer in yellow (Estela Merlos) whipped her arms around the focal point of her legs. The solos dispersed and gathered around one another. One dancer blessed the corner with his gravity-defying jumps and leaps. Standing on one leg was what they signed up for. They commanded this skill with grace, with clarity. The dancers’ solos ambled aimlessly through the space, but that was the point.

Annie Coggan: Last year, at Royal Opera House, I was struck by seeing so many familiar faces at the ballet: Ewan McGregor, Edmund de Waal, celebs and art figures. I bemoaned the fact that at the ballet in NYC, you do not see the city’s intelligencia in the audience. Well, last night at Brooklyn Academy of Music was very different. I spotted a full line of New York City Ballet dancers behind me. I was in the critics’ end row seats and every publication was there, although Perron was over on the other side. I saw dance friends and no fewer than four art and design history professors. So some high-culture big guns were there.

Equally, not one dancer was not exquisite on stage. The word “exquisite” is not hyperbole, I really mean that the tone and richness of the cast was finely honed and delicately crafted. Vicky Shick and Keith Sabado played the elder statesmen to a T, with Sabado appearing on a bike and Schick gently placing her open palm on her hip. Many of the men had very high jumps, seemingly higher than ballet virtuosos.

Structure-wise, at the three-quarter mark of the piece there was a series of tableaux, which I found a bit cringey — the only false note in the evening. Too long, even if Merce loved such moments and the dancers looked staged, not pedestrian.

On dancing a solo (or five)

Lara Wilson: It’s fun recognizing moments from your experiences — the overlapping solos, the bike. We had a large cardboard box that scooted across the stage and a very sharp dancer (BODYTRAFFIC’s Jessica Liu) with an umbrella. Each of the three shows must have been slightly different. Oluwaseun mentioned everyone starting on stage, and only one dancer started off our version at Royce Hall at Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA. By the time everyone came onstage about halfway in, and the signature long pause came along with that, I had a big question. What Is A Solo? Was it four solos when one, two, then three men partnered a woman in dark blue — when one grabbed her thigh, and one caught her when she leaned back, and two carried her upstage before she let her upper body dive backwards suddenly? Was it then 25 solos when, at the end, many dancers were moving in a slowly-accumulating unison of shoulders, elbows, arms, and knees?

O.O.: Yes, the question of what is a solo comes up…I think the type of relationship (solo, duet, trio, etc.) is a question of how does my body absorb the other bodies in the space? Am I seeing them? Am I pulling from their energy? Is it my job to see them? Or are we like space rocks? Bound to hit something at some point, so: random. The production design definitely composes an ensemble situation (i.e., rainbows for costumes by Reid & Harriet). And since this was live-streamed, we can also factor in the compartmentalization of the performance into one screen, one vantage point for those watching at home. So there’s a way in which we are forced to see how everything fits together, but really at its most bite-sized scale, the dancers are enraptured with themselves, their form, their precision.

On the visual design and what makes Cunningham, Cunningham

O.O.: There’s maybe a renewed vitality afloat when you know you’re dancing a late choreographer’s work, a reverence. I definitely felt I was watching real people careen and twirl around the stage. Projected on the cyclorama, a cannon shot and missed a red target several times, maybe the dancers did, too, it wasn’t our job to know. Repetition in this work was not only rhythm, but certainty — the dancers showed us they knew ‘what’ they were doing, over and over again.

At times, the black and white images on the cyc resembled the shapes and poses of the dancers. A dancer in a red unitard looked like a watering pot, then a shovel, then a wheel. As “Weight — for the stand stops” appeared on the syke, the dancers flooded the stage again. Frozen. Soon after, a man with cans can-canned (in Cunningham fashion), the performer creating a new soundscape, while another dancer in yellow fluttered on one leg. He was loud, the man with cans, and red dots stained the cyc.

A.C.: Yesterday I got to see the first 40 minutes or so of London on the live stream. The thing that struck me first and foremost were the black and white images of the Duchamp readymades as the backdrop. And as Oluwaseun states, the form of the readymades and the shapes of the choreography were amazingly sympathetic. I wonder if there is documentation on whether Cunningham really looked at the Duchamp work on an intense level. I also found myself wondering about the Cunningham performance I had never seen. When pristine props came onstage — the bicycle, the umbrella, the chair, the pair of trousers embellished with cans — I yearned for the downtown version, scrappy, dogeared.

L.W.: There were so many relevés. I got to the point where I started seeing the wobbles and tremors and finding beauty and humanity in them. By the end, “normal” walking seemed like the most awkward move up there. It was a trippy sort of trance I’m pretty sure the ambient soundscape and Jennifer Steinkamp’s projections helped me reach — her images for LA were of falling silk scarves and huge colored fruits pressing against glass and twisting trees and shifting wildflower patterns against dark backgrounds. I agree with Annie that there’s definitely something changed about a choreographer’s work when it is presented at this unprecedented scope and especially as a retrospective. Even if these are purely Cunningham movements staged by former Cunningham dancers, the production design and the diversity in the casting are new additions created in hindsight (“retrospect”) and made possible by resources Cunningham himself may not have been able to access. However, the company did perform at UCLA about three quarters of the time they were in LA, so there was some historical continuity as far as venue…

On diversity and the dancers we loved

O.O.: One of the London dancers (Toke Stranby) did not have a left forearm and hand so we saw his body against other dancers with two arms. What was amazing to me was that even though many of the gestures were two-armed movements, I never felt a sense of loss, everything the movement intended was still there. I had a lovely conversation with my friend about whether seeing more dancers of color or of varying age or different ability actually does anything. Does it change the audience? Does it change who feels they can access the work? … When it came down to it, as trite as it felt for me to say it, it was about being able to see oneself at the highest form of a technique that has a long tradition of homogenous bodies. For me, seeing people with curves, of color, with different abilities and body shapes, with Afro hairstyles, with African aesthetics in their bodies, the enduring possibility of Cunningham becomes pluralized rather than simplified. Cunningham won’t only exist as the company he had until he passed. The form is reimagined and now can last even longer in the cultural zeitgeist of American techniques because it’s not one thing.

L.W.: That’s so interesting. Stranby sounds like he was wonderful to watch. Did Cunningham ever cast someone differently-abled? Are we meant to assume he would have, had he lived today? I worry about how this retrospective mis-casts a white male pioneer as someone who would change the status quo of body type and diversity. On the other hand, I suppose it’s a credit to the producers and stagers of this event and to the Merce Trust that the next era of this movement is meant to be an inclusive one. LA’s cast demonstrated a great age range, several dancers of color (but still majority white dancers), a fairly even mix gender-wise, and many different types of movers. My eye was especially drawn to Jermaine Spivey, who seemed the least-Mercey out of the bunch. His movement was technically great, but it was also so imbued with his own space-hunger and punchiness that I felt more coming from him — felt what the choreography could become when released from its cage. Riley Watts, red-bearded in green, balanced strength and precision beautifully, with a presence like he was keeping a joke to himself.

O.O.: The exits were just as interesting as the entrances. The dancers ran off stage, like the end of a line in poetry. Siobhan Davies entered and her hands were soft, her body responsive; she contrasted the electric space with her slow and exacting movements. Just when you thought Cunningham’s form is about lines, geometry, cutting — which it is — dancers renewed faith that hips in his work can shimmy, wiggle, move as the arms and legs do.

A.C.: In New York, there were some dancer standouts: Chalvar Monteiro was a wonder (Ailey), Tamisha Guy’s technique was crystalline (Abraham in Motion). Maggie Cloud was was serenity personified (John Jasperse, Beth Gill). And the Sara Mearns. Mearns’ first solo was quite frankly the most difficult in the evening. Some of the strangest jumps and leg switches known to man. I always thought there was a logic to a Cunningham jump sequence but this was quite batty. Mearns went for it, but it was a humbling first moment onstage, and again she earns the bravest-dancer-in-town award. The next sequences she was given were more her wheelhouse, leggy, balances drawn from her rock hard core. Damn, is she strong. I was taken with her creature-like presence, very “Mercian.” She looked more animal than ballerina. A bit of the wonderful otherworldliness that Wendy Whelan had in her work with modern choreographers. But Mearns was not the star. Merce’s world is democratic always. And I have to say there was not one person who you thought should not be there, again a well-honed machine.

On the music and the overall effect

L.W.: Re: the soundscape, Cage would approve. I found it disorienting. Like, my mind wandered to the extent of “what if a shooter comes in” because the dissonance was so great and the sounds were coming from so many different directions. At other points, there were birds tweeting and water running, which complimented our nature-themed projections. Overall, the mood in the theater was excited and filled with wonder. I enjoyed the looping sense of time, imagining the dancers hearing the music for the first time, and the specificity of place the unique score and projected background provided.

O.O.: The music in London was spare, eerie. One of the last images we were left with was a dancer, previously in bright green, now in a brownish-pink three-piece costume: shirt, leggings, and sweater wrapped tight around his muscular body (Harry Alexander). He jogged in place, simultaneously changing the location of the clothes on his body. The 25 dancers made their way to the stage at the end, maybe we had been there for 90 minutes, maybe we had not. Their energy could have kept going and I could have kept watching. They got three curtain calls. It was that digestible.

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