Lord of the Dance

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Lord of the Dance

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Talk about art world staying power. Last Saturday, I drove up to Dia: Beacon to see Merce Cunningham unveil his 769th site-specific “Event.” The greatest of living choreographers, Cunningham, now 88 and still spry of mind, drew a packed house of hipsters young and old from the worlds of art, dance and new music. (I also spotted Christophe de Menil, a member of one of the great American art families and artist Dash Snow’s grandmother.)

An Event, in the Cunningham parlance, is a combination of excerpts from older works, put together by the choreographer with new snippets and in a new order, which is decided—literally—by his roll of the dice. As with all of Cunningham’s works, the dance, music and décor come together for the first time on opening night. (Cunningham staged his first Event in Vienna in 1964, using a décor by his then in-house designer, Robert Rauschenberg.) Cunningham watchers love to try to pick out the bits they recognize. I’ve been a follower for years and am always struck by the feeling of anticipation before one of these performances: No one knows quite what to expect, not even Merce.

I was curious to see how he’d use the unconventional space of the Walter de Maria galleries at Dia. The dance was performed by two groups on two adjoining stages linked by a square doorway, and the audience was urged to move around and watch the dance from various vantage points. Each time I was about to move to the other side, I’d be rooted to the spot by some sudden rush of movement right in front of me. At first it was captivating to see what seemed like mirror-like images on both stages; then suddenly the two parts were moving in entirely different ways. The point was that you could never see the whole dance at one time, though I wasn’t alone in finding it both intriguing and frustrating. In fact, depending on where you stood, the dancers occasionally disappeared from view entirely, so that you were left looking only at other audience members watching something you couldn’t see.

Though no longer an enfant terrible, Cunningham remains firmly on the cutting edge. For a 2006 work, each audience member listened to an iPod loaded with the score set on shuffle mode, and in the coming months he plans to launch “Mondays with Merce,” an interactive studio webcast that will connect audiences to him and the dancers in real time. Earlier in the week, he’d dropped by Rauschenberg’s opening at PaceWildenstein, and while he and Bob sat together chatting happily, gallery goers vied for their autographs and snapped photos of these modern masters via cell phone.

Photo by Anna Finke

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