Merce Cunningham’s Nearly Ninety at BAM

April 17, 2009

A spaceship arrived at BAM tonight. And mysterious godly creatures danced their hearts out, roaring with commitment.

Merce Cunningham’s Nearly Ninety is an ode to his dancers. They find center and presence within the impossible. Over and over, they tilt inhuman balances until they fall backwards.

They tumble through space for precarious moments to be caught, just in time, by one another. Theirs is a familiarly complex proposition. They leave, and soar, in order to return back home.

In this piece, dancers wind themselves around one another, looking for all possible ways to share weight. They really touch. And they really counterbalance. Often they are two people, preposterously balanced, completely dependent.

These are tasks completely of the body and demanding complete attention from much more than just the body. There is no second-guessing. There is no comment. There is no room for anything outside of pure human endeavor. The only meta-level is the inherent metaphysics of human effort expended so fully.

John Paul Jones, Takehisa Kosugi, and Sonic Youth play live music from an outer space satellite metal contraption complete with a stairway to heaven. Lighting and sound emphasize a relationship between the space age, man-made set made by Benedetta Tagliabue and a bubbling, gurgling, elemental video projection by Franc Aleu.

In the tension between industrial and organic, and within the relentless difficulty of the dance, brief moments of delicious personality emerge. Rashaun Mitchell’s hips feel satisfyingly (almost orgasmically) obscene as they slowly shift to the side. Andrea Weber’s fingers tingle so slightly, gently touching the air as her leg slices another direction. Silas Riener catches his jumps off guard– a mad man risking all.

They transmit electricity generated only by a certain kind of being alive. And I imagine that they have learned much about this from the man they dance for. At 90, Merce Cunningham is still relentlessly and rigorously exploring what it means to move. Which is really the same thing as what it means to be alive.

After a packed BAM opera house gave many standing ovations, much cheering, many tears, and a happy birthday song, Merce Cunningham spoke gently from his wheelchair.

“After my first year at Cornish, my parents had a discussion. My mother didn’t see a future in dance. My father said, ‘If he didn’t have that dance game, he’d be a crook.’ I’m delighted to be here and able to tell you that story. And I’m delighted to be able to give you something you may not have seen before.”

We are delighted too.