On what would have been Merce Cunningham’s 100th birthday, a pan-Atlantic tribute danced from London to New York to LA. The three performances revisited 100 of the legendary choreographer’s solos, spanning from the 1950s to his death in 2009. In London, former Cunningham dancer Daniel Squire refashioned the steps into a brand-new work, with a cast of 25, including performers from the Royal Ballet, Rambert and Michael Clark Company.
It’s a celebratory event, but like all of Cunningham’s work, there is nothing sentimental about it. The material may be decades old, but it remains as fresh and radical as ever, and it’s as much an experiment in being a viewer as it is in making dance: the highly technical abstraction frustrates, challenges, absorbs and delights as it ever did.
The material also surprises. You think you know Cunningham’s stark, straight lines, then in comes a sudden scribble of limbs collapsing the poised frame. You know his dancers’ ever-placid demeanour? Well, here’s Jonathan Goddard attacking tricksy steps with a mien of pure annoyance. You think Cunningham’s dance is cold and stripped of emotion? Cue an intensely invested Francesca Hayward, turning a deep plié and circular port de bras into something divine. She makes movement glow.
It’s fascinating to see dancers of different backgrounds, ages and bodies performing Cunningham’s taxing steps, from young Royal Ballet dancer Joseph Sissens’s mesmerisingly long limbs and classical instincts to a 68-year-old Siobhan Davies in careful procession. Sometimes the performers are alone on stage, but elsewhere the solos live alongside one another, harmoniously or indifferently. It is as if you took a random selection of people and read the thoughts busy in their brains. Some would be obsessing on repetitive loops, others slowly mulling, there’d be logical workings out, mundane details and flights of fancy. Here the bodies do the same.
Being Cunningham, there is an electro-static-esque soundtrack; a backdrop of unconnected art (photographs by Richard Hamilton) and those ubiquitous, unforgiving unitards. He may no longer be here, but this is a Cunningham experience through and through; not the sewing up of a legacy, but merely the posing of another set of ever-curious questions.