Merce Cunningham’s Legacy Is Celebrated With a “Night of 100 Solos”

Merce Cunningham’s Legacy Is Celebrated With a “Night of 100 Solos”

LOS ANGELES — “Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event”

What makes a Merce Cunningham dancer?

On Tuesday, 75 dancers will gather in New York, London and Los Angeles to inhabit the spine-altering Cunningham technique for “Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event” in commemoration of what would have been the late choreographer’s 100th birthday. Each location will feature a unique program of solos performed by 25 participants, none of whom (by design) are former Merce Cunningham Dance Company members. All of the performances will be available through a live stream embedded within this post (above) as well as on the Merce Cunningham Trust website and Facebook page, and will be archived online in the latter two spots for three months.

The Events — a term defined by Cunningham as a program of fragments drawn from his repertoire — mark an ambitious chapter in yearlong celebration of the choreographer’s centennial and adds to a running calendar of performances, talks, screenings and exhibitions taking place throughout the world.

“You can say that it’s a lot of work for one night, but I rather feel like all of the work that has happened is part of the project,” said Patricia Lent, who staged the New York Event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, set to include appearances by dancers such as Sara Mearns, Maggie Cloud, Kyle Abraham, Shayla-Vie Jenkins and more. “It’s been a long sharing process. And, of course, the final performance is very exciting and is the culmination.”

Merce Cunningham watching rehearsal.
Merce Cunningham watching rehearsal. Photo courtesy of The Merce Cunningham Trust.

A former MCDC dancer, Lent is now the director of licensing for the Merce Cunningham Trust, which has been instrumental in carrying on the choreographer’s legacy since his death in 2009 and the disbandment of the company two years later. The “Night of 100 Solos” performance is a product of the Trust’s efforts.

“We have a number of strategic goals or aspirations that we hope that this “Night of 100 Solos” will help communicate,” said the Trust’s executive director, Ken Tabachnick. One of these goals is “to engage as many of the former dancers as possible in communicating the bodily knowledge that they have inside of them to a different generation of dancers.”

To do so, the Trust engaged former MCDC members to teach the solos to the dancers performing in the Events.

“This process has really taught me to bring myself to the work and let the movement flow,” said Jacquelin Harris, a dancer at Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. “I was also really grateful to be in the room with the originators or people who worked closely with Merce on each solo. The information that they have to share is invaluable.”

Without the Cunningham company, the bodies of the dancers become the conduit of the choreographic history.

“What’s interesting now is that when I work with student dancers or even professional dancers, more and more they’ve never seen the Cunningham company,” said Lent. “So it doesn’t take long, generational-wise for dancers, for it to have slipped into history.”

Merce Cunningham Dance Company

This was the case for Marc Crousillat, a member of the Trisha Brown Dance Company. Crousillat began dancing professionally in New York City in 2013, two years after the final performance of the Cunningham company. As a result, he has taken an “actorly” approach to imbue the personal history into the choreography. Participating in the Event and learning the solos from former members allows for a bit of this distance to be closed.

“It is an enriching experience for me to literally embody ideas of people who spent their lives dedicated to such a meaningful craft,” said Crousillat. “It helps me to understand a specific history in a really deep way that I don’t think I would feel simply reading about it.”

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From a practical standpoint, structuring the performances as a grouping of solos allowed for a greater range of freedom in teaching, which could be done one-on-one rather than as a large herd.

While the list of those chosen for each role remains under lock-and-key, Lent described how the solos span several decades of Cunningham’s working career. These solos from different time periods will be performed all on the same stage, making it so that there may be a solo from the 1950s in conversation with one from the 1990s. After the dancers participate in the Event, they retain the rights to the solo for two years to perform as they please, ensuring that the transmission of Cunningham’s work across a wide swath of time will continue.

“It’s an eccentric and celebratory collection of Merce’s work from over the course of many decades, done by many different people,” said Lent. “So I think in that way it connects with the legacy.”

Merce Cunningham Dance Company

For the New York performance, Lent prioritized diversity in her dancers, particularly in age and in style. As a result, the performers included represent a wide-ranging group, some of whom are not trained in Cunningham technique — characterized for its athletic interpretation of line and movement, particularly through the use of the torso, spin and legs. To prepare, the Trust opened up the daily Cunningham class at City Center to the participants.

Kyle Abraham, who founded the dance company A.I.M. (Abraham in Motion) and who recently choreographed the critically acclaimed piece “The Runaway” for the New York City Ballet, said the technique is one that “is so much at the forefront of the way in which people, dancers in particular, find admiration in the form. And I’ve never considered myself a technical dancer. But the Cunningham repertory has always had room for movers, and I’d like to think that is somewhere I can fall in line.”

The final stitches of the multi-layered project were placed this past weekend when the full cast of dancers assembled at BAM for two days of studio time before the final rehearsals and runthroughs on Monday and the public performance on Tuesday.

“We’re not anticipating that it’s going to look like the Cunningham company has come back to life,” said Lent. “It’s intended to have an eclectic look and to have and to have this kind of courage to inhabit this work.”

Top Image: Merce Cunningham watching rehearsal. Photo courtesy of The Merce Cunningham Trust.