Thoroughly modern Merce

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday March 30, 2010
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Maybe someday a Gay Studies dissertation will explain the link between "The Gay Closet and Cryptic Tendencies in Modernist Art." If so, the dances of the late Merce Cunningham, the greatest and most disconcerting of the Modernists, might serve as the best field to explore, since they are so beautiful and so inscrutable as to repay all the attention that can be expended upon them. His mixture of fascination and boredom leaves Gertrude Stein in the dust. We just saw his swan-song, "Nearly 90 [2]," in Berkeley this past weekend, sponsored by Cunningham's staunch lifelong supporter, Cal Performances, and it is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

When "Nearly 90" premiered in Brooklyn last year, Cunningham was alive to see it. It was indeed a kind of birthday celebration, but also, everyone knew, he was fading fast and was not likely to live far beyond it. Which turned out to be the case.

The Berkeley version was danced without the original gaudy set (which resembled a Coney Island crab shack on stilts, took up most of the space, and featured a gangplank on which Julie Cunningham danced a difficult solo high above stage level). John Paul Jones (of Led Zeppelin) was not on hand to play his music, but there were some juicy guitar licks amidst the computer-generated honkings, rumbles, and splitting noises generated by Takehisa Kosugi �" which, as usual with Cunningham, happened according to their own scheme, and not in any relationship to what the dancers were doing. At times it felt like you were in the hold of a stealth bomber which had no sound-abatement amenities; at others, an eerie quiet prevailed, and every now and then you'd hear some sweet old-fashioned guitar harmonies, rich with major thirds, when it would seem that maybe the dancers breathed a sigh of relief �" but no matter what, they soldiered on.

They were always going either very slow or very fast: sailing around backwards in the shape of the FTD logo, very slowly and for multiple turns, before lowering the heel and continuing to rotate in perfect positions at half-speed; or at the end, standing stretched out on the balls of their feet and slowly bowing forward �" very slowly, til the hands nearly brushed the ground, and then slowly arc-ing sideways, still on the balls of their feet as they swept like a second hand, but much slower. They made me invest in their fates. I found myself pulling for them, my body responded to their moves as if I were doing these things myself, and after the show I found myself pulling my stomach up into my rib-cage and trying to pour myself over the top while my legs still pulled up underneath me, in fascination with this. As if this were high school, and I'd just seen a new dance and had to learn it. I also noticed that whenever a dancer left the stage, there was a pang, and the final exit, when Julie Cunningham was pulled offstage backwards with her leg pointing behind her like a javelin, I knew it was over, and I felt a terrible loss.

Merce Cunningham is gone. The era of Modernism is long gone, and the conditions under which it arose are so long gone it may never be intelligible again. When Cunningham was young, artists could live off the fat of the land and mock bourgeois expectations; there is no more fat of this land, and there may never be again, and that stance may be irrecoverable.

More 'Mermaid'

Meanwhile, another visit to San Francisco Ballet's The Little Mermaid (to see the second-cast ballerina Sarah van Patten) went a long way to reconcile me to the melodrama of this powerful spectacle. Van Patten is both a warmer and more musical dancer than (first-cast) Yuan Yuan Tan, and though she lacks Tan's extreme flexibility (which made Tan seem as fluid as a fish), nevertheless she "swam" in the music with such feeling for the timbres and melodies (of a score that had seemed merely serviceable on opening night) that I bought into the illusion and came to respect the composer.

The other second-cast principals also played it warmer: the French-born premier Pascal Molat brought tremendous mime-craft to the role of the Poet (at times he even resembled Marcel Marceau in the face), and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba seemed less the "iron fist in the velvet glove" that Tiit Hellimets had been. Which maybe only means that this ensemble suits an American taste a little better than the first-cast, which had the parade of deathly glamour of Last Year at Marienbad (the syndrome that Pauline Kael long ago called a "Come as the Sick Soul of Europe Party"). Nothing can make the Mermaid's cringing, hang-dog cravings eloquent. Her pleading with the Prince even at his wedding makes you realize that poor Madama Butterfly at least gets to be beautiful while she's begging. But van Patten's stonewalling the Sea Witch's demand that she kill the Prince gave her very fine material. Her adamantine refusal put me in mind of Lillian Gish and other heroines who saw opportunities to present greatness of soul and showed us how it's done.

Again this time around, the whole cast performed with awesome commitment to induct us into this dreamlike fantasy. Garen Scribner as the Sea Witch, Vanessa Zahorian as the Princess, Elizabeth Miner, Elana Altman, Lily Rogers as mermaids, James Sofranko, Martyn Garside, Benjamin and Matthew Stewart as sailors, Sasha de Sola, Courtney Elizabeth, Pauli Magierek, Aaron Orza, Luke Willis, in all their roles carried the burden of never letting the spell let go of us.