A farewell to Merce Cunningham: ‘The Legacy Tour’ at the Brooklyn Academy of Music

Dancers perform in 'The Legacy Tour.' (Julieta Cervantes)
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Merce Cunningham was a rock star of sorts in the dance world. So it is only fitting that BAM is currently hosting The Legacy Tour, a farewell by any other name and the company’s penultimate appearance before it takes a short side-trip to Paris and closes down forever at the Park Avenue Armory on Dec. 29-31.

Cunningham died in 2009 at the age of 90 and specified in his will that the company should disband after two final years of presenting his work: his dances are being catalogued for future generations by the Cunningham Dance Foundation and will be made available to choreographers who would like to stage them in the future.

Anyone with an interest in contemporary dance—or modernism, or 20th-century culture in general—will delight in these BAM programs. Starting in the early 1950s along with Martha Graham, and building on the work of pioneers such as Ruth St. Denis and Isadora Duncan, Cunningham set the tone for future generations of modern dancers and choreographers. Like Jackson Pollock and Jasper Johns in the art world and his partner John Cage in music, Cunningham revolutionized his craft: He took apart, deconstructed, and isolated movement, did away with conventional narrative and created a wholly original and lasting vocabulary of movement.

The Legacy Tour, which presented Roaratorio on Wednesday and a dynamic Program B made up of Second Hand (1970) and Biped (1999) last night, continues Friday and Saturday night with Program C, which includes Pond Way (1998), Rainforest (1968) and Split Sides (2003). Second Hand, with costumes by Jasper Johns, has no décor, while Split Sides is set to music by Sigur Rós and Radiohead, and Rainforest showcases dancers who move around silver pillows designed by Andy Warhol—each piece is fabulous in its own, original way.

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On Dec. 7, the company presented a dazzling rendition of the ambitious 1983 Roaratorio. Subtitled An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake, this bold attempt to bring James Joyce’s masterpiece to life in dance is a study in luminous, vibrant movement. To a sometimes cacophonous Cage score, the dancers spread across the stage, sometimes facing forward, sometimes to the side: they repeated identical movements, then switched legs or lifted opposing arms and executed mirror or asymmetrical versions of the former moves. At times they paired off, at others they danced alone. Everything was there: ballet, folk, Irish jig—helter skelter, not just Joyce but an entire century passed by on stage. The dancers—all outstanding, including a resplendent Rashaun Mitchell—exited stage left throughout the production past an open curtain. Hence the audience was privy to everything that usually stays hidden backstage as the dancers changed leg warmers and T-shirts, warmed up and stretched, and otherwise readied to go back onstage. As with the movement itself, the costume changes were subtle yet effective and created a constantly moving canvas of abstract pigments.

Cage’s score was simultaneously vivid and disorienting. Irish folk music mixed with snippets of classical composition and augmented by random sounds, traffic noises, an elephant trumpeting, and simple spoken sentences combined to form an unmistakable and unforgettable whole. At one point one overheard hasta luego, as if Cage had anticipated this final performance of Roaratorio. At the end of the one-hour piece, all the dancers assembled on stage and executed more of Cunningham’s trademark moves. A few started to gather the stools from which they had previously observed their colleagues. Then all at once they were gone. The audience rose for an extended standing ovation. A moment in the history of dance was slowly but inexorably moving into the past tense. It was a moment to be cherished.