Pivotal choreographer Merce Cunningham influenced so many people that his memorial event filled one of New York City’s largest interior spaces last Wednesday. “Events in Honor of Merce – Memorial” saw the 50,000 square-foot Park Avenue Armory Drill Hall hosting a dance world stunned with loss yet ardently celebrating an extraordinary life.
Three ground-level marley dance floors edged with footlights formed the subtle delineation between performance space and general space. This blurred distinction between theater and reality harkened back to the 1950’s “happenings” staged by Cunningham and lifelong partner and composer John Cage. Happenings were interactive events intended to blur the lines between performer and observer, and between dancer and poet, actor, artist, musician. They also made the theater experience a singular, unique experience to each audience member.
Wednesday’s “event” had no center, no focal point, no front, back, stage left, stage right or even backstage. Rather, there was continuous movement and interaction, flowing equally between dancer and audience and across the three stages of the hall. How characteristic this was of Cunningham’s lifelong work. After the Buddhist assertion of a multiplicity of centers, Cunningham liberated the traditional conceptions of dance space, making whatever area the dancer occupied become the center. He often changed the dancer’s facing up to twenty times within one piece, and his most famous maxim was “there are no fixed points in space.”
I overheard more than one conversation contemplating the end of modernism. Some wondered if they were witnessing its demise. Some argued that it had already died with the birth of postmodernism. In the spirit of Cunningham’s denial of fixed points, it is my belief that modernism is - and will remain - a vital and transient movement that can never truly be declared “dead” in a world that Merce has touched. It will obtain immortality in the lives and works of the children who performed at the event and who have learned by Cunningham’s methods.
As one of my college professors summarized dance history: “There is before Merce, and there is after Merce.”