I wrote “A Passion Observed” over a month ago although it was only recently posted. Last week, Bill T. Jones was interviewed by Tom Ashbrook for NPR’s On Point radio show. I always love the show, but when my favorite liberal artist/choreographer in on….I REALLY love the show. (Last week also featured a show on knitting…another score for me!) We listened to this on our drive to Ann Arbor to see the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s Legacy Tour. What a wonderfully dance filled Saturday.
One of the things Tom Ashbrook was perseverant in getting Bill T. Jones to answer regarded the significance of dance; why use dance as a vehicle for expression instead of literature, poetry, etc. Mr. Jones commented with a few, well-selected words: “it’s real people, in real time, using the most basic of instruments.” He explained that this is the power of live theatre- “the exceptional moment.” He likened dance to life by outlining the journey of birth, growth, and death. Essentially, it is what we all have in common and dance may serve as a metaphor of that. Hmm.
The body tells our story, whether we like it or not. It relates us to one another in a way that language and culture can often fall short. Dance is visceral, kinetic, and binding. In watching dance, we respond first instinctually and then intellectually.
In watching the Merce Cunningham Dance Company on Saturday night, I was keenly aware of the body- the isolation of it, the explosiveness of it, the control of it, and the development of it. At times, I was also aware of the absence of these things. None where more noticeable, however, than the absence of Merce Cunningham or at least his critical eye and the coaching that inevitably would have followed. I enjoyed the performance and I thought the choice of program was insightful. Yet, something was missing. It was a little as though the glue holding these elements together was a little less gripping than it used to be. It seemed to me that liberties in movement were taken. Some personalities shined through while others felt a little dull. For me, the latter were dancing bodies not necessarily engaging fully in the “exceptional moment” and I had never seen that happen in a Cunningham performance before.
Appreciating Cunningham’s movement, for me, has been a journey of an acquired taste. Yet, his methods for dance making and commitment to longevity had me from the beginning. In watching Squaregame (1976) and Splitsides (2003), I recognized his ability to reflect and redirect without sacrificing any of his integrity in movement or commitment to his philosophy. He seemed simply to be able to change with the times and continued to explore and develop his work accordingly. I hope when I am approaching 90, I am able to be so open and yet still so focused. He seemed to see his dancers for who they really were, physically, and put their strengths to use. Don’t get me wrong, a Cunningham dancer will still stand out as a Cunningham dancer in a studio of branded and non-branded movers, but he seemed to embrace their cross-training in his later work more than I think he would have in his beginning.
What I appreciated most, however, was our collective sense of mourning. If I can read into the patchy personal performances, I would be inclined to think that by now, this tour must be brutal. I wonder if, in an act of self-preservation, some of the dancers have started to emotionally separate themselves from the work. Performing these dances without the motivation of having Merce’s approval and winding down to the end of it all must be excruciating. Dancing for people that are attending because it is the last chance rather than a brave new start as a Cunningham supporter must be difficult. After seeing the company in 2004, I can safely say the wind has been taken out of the sails. But we were there in the theatre together, remembering. Dance brought us together again to recall, reflect, and re-inspire. Dance allowed us to re-member our Cunningham community, our dance community, a facet of our greater arts community. I needed it.
On our drive home, we listened to the remainder of the Bill T. Jones interview. At one point, a caller relayed something that Bill T. Jones had said in a class she was attending at The Ohio State University in the 1990s. He apparently seemed frustrated with the class and sat the dancers down. To paraphrase, he told them they wouldn’t all become dancers. But regardless of what they did do, if they dug deep and kept true to what dance requires, they would still be dancers. If they went to places that challenged them, where they were uncomfortable, but were fully present, they would still be dancers. This touched me. Hmm.
As I think about it that was exactly what happened in the theatre last night. Cunningham allowed us that. I had been looking for the “exceptional moment” to happen under the lights but it happened in the dark. It was my “exceptional moment.” It happened in the attendance of live theatre. To Merce, his dancers, and the rest of our community, Bill T. Jones and the OSU grad included, I am forever thankful.