Beginning in 1964, Merce Cunningham regularly produced “Events,” which he described as shows consisting of “dances from the repertory and new sequences arranged for [a] particular performance and place, with the possibility of several separate activities happening at the same time.” The show that took place inside the drill hall of the Seventh Regiment Armory in New York City on December 31 certainly fit that description but was also much more. The vast size of the hall was amplified by the imposing presence of three raised stages—resembling boxing rings—arranged in an arc between Park and Lexington avenues. Half of New York’s artistic tribe seemed to have turned out, from Meredith Monk to Chuck Close, to ballet stars like Damian Woetzel and a herd of choreographers, ballet masters and dancers from companies of every stripe. There were also countless former Cunningham company members of all ages and a gaggle of what could only be described as New Year’s revelers, all aglitter and stilettoed. People mingled and greeted one another, or wandered in a daze, or jostled for the best sightlines, and then watched the nearly hourlong performance in reverent silence. Only a small number of seats were available, so most of the 1,500 ticket holders stood either at ground level or atop elevated platforms. A few, anxious that they might miss a crucial moment, wandered constantly from stage to stage and back again. All were there to witness the same thing: the death of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.
The hall was bathed in a misty chiaroscuro created in part by the projection of lights through dangling, cloudlike clusters of pétanque-sized white balls. Thus refracted, the beams resembled the celestial rays of late-Gothic religious paintings. There were other quasi-religious touches: the glow of the neo-Gothic chandeliers in the foyer, the vaulted ceilings of the drill hall, the crowds filing in from the cold night as if to midnight Mass. The show’s music—never, in Cunningham’s case, an accompaniment but an autonomous, separate element—was a collage of work by four composers long associated with the company: David Behrman, John King, Takehisa Kosugi and Christian Wolff. It incorporated soaring harmonies of brass (reminiscent of Benjamin Britten); a seraphic cello; and the pure, high voices of a prerecorded youth chorus. There was also the usual plethora of noises, including something that sounded like the descending chromatic scale of the turbine engine of an airplane approaching a runway. Most telling were the rapt, almost ecstatic faces of the dancers, who, though they had already performed the same program five times over the course of three days, were clearly aware of this event’s unique circumstances. For the next fifty minutes, they would be Merce Cunningham dancers, and then they would not.
How had it come to this? The Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which since 1953 has fundamentally altered some of the most basic precepts of dance, such as the notion that movement should reflect or comment on the music with which it coexists in time, is not a victim of the crummy economy or evolving tastes. Nor is it the casualty of a struggle over ownership of the repertory, which was nearly the case with Martha Graham’s troupe. Cunningham, the company’s founder and raison d’être, died in the summer of 2009 at 90, one month after the death of Pina Bausch, the director of the Tanztheater Wuppertal. But whereas Bausch’s dancers are soldiering on, Cunningham’s company has come to a calculated end, one formulated over several years by the company’s administration and board, approved by the choreographer and announced one month before his death.
In simple terms, after Cunningham was gone, several things were scheduled to happen. The company would launch a two-year tour showing a broad swath of its repertory (including several reconstructions of older works), which would eventually take it to almost fifty cities around the world and culminate in a series of year-end performances at the Armory with all tickets priced at $10. A group of dances would be preserved and archived as “dance capsules,” digital bundles that would include items such as performance videos, design sketches, notes and musical recordings, for the use of future researchers and stagers. (In 2008 the company had also asked the dance writer Nancy Dalva to produce a web series, “Mondays With Merce,” for the benefit of the general public, filled with interviews and footage of performances and rehearsals.) The rights to the dances would be held by a trust, which would be responsible for preserving and staging the work, with the assistance of former dancers. The Merce Cunningham Trust would also ensure the continued teaching of the technique developed by Cunningham, so central to the physical logic of the dances. (Unfortunately, this new entity could not arrange to retain its base at the current studio, a beautiful, meditative space perched above Westbeth in the West Village. Classes and offices will move to City Center, with training satellites at Dance New Amsterdam in Tribeca and the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn.) Then, after the two-year tour, the company would close, and a fifty-nine-year journey would come to an end.