Save for Patti Smith’s annual New Year’s Eve gig, the artiest and New Yorkest of ways to bid adieu to 2011 was also a fond farewell to a titan of high modernist dance. After touring the world for two years, the late choreographer Merce Cunningham’s company returned to its hometown to hold its last-ever performances over three nights, culminating with a final dance just hours before the stroke of midnight on December 31. After that, the Merce Cunnigham Dance Company effectively ceased to exist.
With such a dramatic set-up, anticipation was butter-thick as hundreds of lucky ticket-holders filed into the Park Avenue Armory’s majestic drill hall (a fitting venue—imagine being inside a gargantuan whale). It was quite awe-inspiring, with fourteen of the company’s virtuosic dancers performing excerpts from the company’s repertoire, along with wholly new sequences. About an hour later, nobody left disappointed, although nobody witnessed the exact same thing. Cunningham famously loved chance, and no two of the six site-specific performances (two per night) were identical. He also eschewed the fixed viewpoint, so guests were not only standing, but encouraged to roam freely about the space, to each of its three stages. A lot was happening, lending to an individual experience for everyone, depending which way one looked.
It’s well-known that Merce Cunningham’s choreographies could be as challenging for the audience as for the dancers, but here there was an air of spirited grace. Costumes featured Miuccia-esque scenes of the Manhattan skyline and the music, while far from melodious, wasn’t as off-putting as some of John Cage’s trying yet brilliant compositions for the company’s early shows. The only set decor (by artist Daniel Arsham) consisted of cloud-like formations made up of thousands of small spheres that hung from high above the hall’s cavernous darkness.
It was a fitting tribute to a master who came to be synonymous with avant-garde dance. By definition, the avant-garde quickly becomes the merely modern, then mainstream. The no-longerness of MCDC is therefore really not a sad thing, but a happy matter of course.