Merce Cunningham's Nearly Ninety at BAM

A spaceship arrived at BAM tonight. And mysterious godly creatures danced their hearts out, roaring with commitment.

Merce Cunningham’s Nearly Ninety is an ode to his dancers. They find center and presence within the impossible. Over and over, they tilt inhuman balances until they fall backwards. They tumble through space for precarious moments to be caught, just in time, by one another. Theirs is a familiarly complex proposition. They leave, and soar, in order to return back home.

In this piece, dancers wind themselves around one another, looking for all possible ways to share weight. They really touch. And they really counterbalance. Often they are two people, preposterously balanced, completely dependent.

These are tasks completely of the body and demanding complete attention from much more than just the body. There is no second-guessing. There is no comment. There is no room for anything outside of pure human endeavor. The only meta-level is the inherent metaphysics of human effort expended so fully.

John Paul Jones, Takehisa Kosugi, and Sonic Youth play live music from an outer space satellite metal contraption complete with a stairway to heaven. Lighting and sound emphasize a relationship between the space age, man-made set made by Benedetta Tagliabue and a bubbling, gurgling, elemental video projection by Franc Aleu.

In the tension between industrial and organic, and within the relentless difficulty of the dance, brief moments of delicious personality emerge. Rashaun Mitchell’s hips feel satisfyingly (almost orgasmically) obscene as they slowly shift to the side. Andrea Weber’s fingers tingle so slightly, gently touching the air as her leg slices another direction. Silas Riener catches his jumps off guard-- a mad man risking all.

They transmit electricity generated only by a certain kind of being alive. And I imagine that they have learned much about this from the man they dance for. At 90, Merce Cunningham is still relentlessly and rigorously exploring what it means to move. Which is really the same thing as what it means to be alive.

After a packed BAM opera house gave many standing ovations, much cheering, many tears, and a happy birthday song, Merce Cunningham spoke gently from his wheelchair.

“After my first year at Cornish, my parents had a discussion. My mother didn’t see a future in dance. My father said, ‘If he didn’t have that dance game, he’d be a crook.’ I’m delighted to be here and able to tell you that story. And I’m delighted to be able to give you something you may not have seen before.”

We are delighted too.

Jerome Bel, Veronique Doisneau

A woman stands onstage at the Paris Opera. She talks with a quality that is soft, open, a bit hesitant. A light pink rehearsal sweater, reminiscent of little girl dance tights, frames her 42 year-old woman’s body.

This uneasy relationship between girl and woman is one of the elements that choreographer Jerome Bel elicits so naturally and poignantly in Veronique Doisneau (both the name of the performer and the name of the performance). In his piece, seen in a film version at Baryshnikov Arts Center on Sunday, Mr. Bel literally gives voice to an artist whose primary job has been to be beautiful and quiet, not drawing attention to herself.

Ms. Doisneau discusses her life as a ballet dancer, part of that group of women who, although fully adult, are still called mesdemoiselles backstage at the Paris Opera. She shares information about her salary, her children. She reveals a mature, regular person going about her work. In a soft aside, she wonders if she wasn’t talented enough to become a star.

She speaks about Giselle and begins to dance. In a moment that is simultaneously public and intensely private, she gently hums music to accompany her own dancing. She evokes all of the little girls who perform, by themselves, in living rooms and bedrooms across the world.

Veronique Doisneau alternates between fact and fully embodied fantasy. The piece, and the woman, present the contradiction that is dance performance. In the hierarchy of the Paris Opera Ballet, Ms. Doisneau is a Sujet, a mid-level status in which she can perform corps de ballet roles as well as soloist ones. In Mr. Bel's performance she becomes the literal subject as well as a powerful narrator. And she makes clear the ways in which she is expected to be an object.

In the understated and powerful climax of Veronique Doisneau, Ms. Doisneau performs a corps de ballet role from Swan Lake, alone. She stands still in choreographed poses while perhaps the most famous and gorgeous music in ballet dances around her. Audience members who know the ballet can imagine what the principal ballerinas would be doing while Ms. Doisneau stands on the side, filling in the picture.

And yet she doesn’t just fill in the picture. In this context, her role becomes an exquisite-- and still --solo. Ms. Doisneau inhabits her poses with the breath and life of a master performer. She exhibits the depth of presence that transforms spectacle (interestingly, the French word for show) into something more metaphysical.

Ms. Doisneau’s ability to fully inhabit her body within an imaginary world is both child-like and also the most profound kind of adult activity. She finds a way to deeply engage, even in the midst of disappointment and just-missed dreams.

Mr. Bel has, once again, created a precise and moving performance that turns around and questions its own nature. He looks at, and critiques, the very particular world of dance. But he also gives his work the space to move into the most tender, and broad, and complex corners of human experience.

Disfarmer by Dan Hurlin

Photo by Pavel Antonov

A man wakes up. He puts on his glasses, pulls out a tape measure and checks the size of his foot. He drinks a beer. Answers the phone. Looks for something to eat. He hits his head on the red lamp in his darkroom.

The next day the man wakes up. He puts on his glasses, pulls out a tape measure and checks the size of his foot. He drinks a beer. Answers the phone. Looks for something to eat. He almost hits his head on the red lamp in his darkroom, but ducks instead.

In his puppet portrait of a portrait photographer, Dan Hurlin looks at the non-events that make up an artist’s life. These are not dramatic, break-through moments. The artist, Mike Disfarmer, is not crazy, or particularly inspired. His is a life of tedious repetition and meticulous attention.

Disfarmer seems like someone who is not particularly likeable, and yet I like him. I watch five grown men gently handle a puppet one-fifth their size. They breathe with him and pay attention to him in a way that taps my human urge to love anything that is small. They also remind me that puppetry acknowledges, so fundamentally and satisfyingly, that we humans make worlds. We make our own worlds and try to find order and meaning in the best ways we can.

As the evening progresses, the small Disfarmer puppet gets smaller. At first the change is imperceptible but, eventually, he is miniscule. His bed swallows him up. His camera is twice his size. He is nowhere near hitting his head on the red darkroom lamp.

Like a Kafka metamorphosis, this seems like a familiar bad dream. Disfarmer is old, overwhelmed and under-equipped for simple everyday tasks. And he is an artist, small in the face of a looming passion. His is a profession in which there is no easy way to measure success or accomplishment; it is built detail by detail. He makes me think of all the tasks we set for ourselves. And the ways we achieve them, one small step at a time.

Photo by Mike Disfarmer

Guest Blog Post

Check out a guest post on Marin Leggat's new blog:

On Freedom of Information 2008

On December 31, 2001, in response to the US invasion of Afghanistan, Miguel Gutierrez did a performance/protest/ritual improvisation in which he tried to move continuously for 24 hours while blindfolded and earplugged. He wanted to do something to acknowledge the people whose lives were being disrupted by the conflict. This year, Miguel reprised the action with at least 31 different artists in 31 different states moving, blindfolded and earplugged, for the last 24 hours of 2008. Organizing Freedom of Information 2008,
his hope was to create a nationwide contemplative action of protest, reflection, and solidarity.


In her twenty-third straight hour of dancing, my friend Janice raises her arms delicately and lightly, like she is flying. She dervish-spins and crawls along a cardboard boundary delineating the ten by ten foot space in which she moves.


Twenty-three hours before, at 12:01am on December 31st I turn on my computer screen. I watch live webstreams of artists on the east coast beginning to dance.

Janice Lancaster criss-crosses her ten by ten foot space. She marks her territory, or rather it marks her. She walks in orderly, linear lines, hitting one cardboard boundary and then the next. I feel claustrophobic and overwhelmed knowing she will dance in this North Carolina gallery space for the next 24 hours.

In New York, Miguel Gutierrez begins with rolling, organic movements. And while Janice appears alone, Miguel has an audience. I am glad he has support. Then, when an audience member seems to join him in a bit of a contact improvisation, I feel protective. I wonder if he wants the company.


As these dancers begin their long journey, I think about turning off the computer and going to bed. I am aware that it is a luxury to choose to go to bed.

I think about my plans for tomorrow and I feel a new responsibility to use my freedom well.


At 1:01am, my time, I watch Malinda Allen join the dance from Arkansas. As Janice and Miguel dig further into their solitary worlds, she joins with a completely new and beginning energy. She bounces and hops.

I am struck by the beauty and hope implicit in dancing as protest.

What is it that keeps us going?


At 2:01am I send an email to all of my friends. They have to witness this event, the power of art and silence and meditation and empathy and dance. It is hard for me to contain the experience of this cross-time-zone offering.


I do go to sleep. And when I wake up in the morning, I am concerned about the dancers. By now, even Hawaii has started. What if I go to the webstream and find only a black screen, or a note? I am worried about Janice. I am worried that the people I emailed will link to find some horrible remnant from an experiment gone awry.

I turn on my computer. And there is Janice in North Carolina and Miguel in New York and Greg in New Hampshire and Malinda in Arkansas and even someone in Hawaii… And they are all still dancing. The most private, individual dances take place, simultaneously, within the most public, communal performance I have experienced.


I go on New Year’s Eve errands: the rehearsal studio, the video editor, the bagel store. I carry with me a magical and seemingly secret knowledge of an event taking place across the country.

I walk to a studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn to watch Miguel in person. I enter during his fifteenth hour of moving and join eight other people including three children, one painter, one photographer, and one person who seems to be officially holding the space.

We sit on the window side of the room, quiet and yet not overly precious, as Miguel balances and stomps and grunts. I feel the movement of clearing out and of continuing. I am shocked by his presence and groundedness after fifteen straight hours of moving.

At one point his sounds turn to mmmmmm, maaa, maaaaa. It reminds me of that universal childhood sound of vulnerability.


Eventually, at 3am, after a free person's New Year's Eve revelry, I return home.

Against the quiet protests of my husband, I turn on my computer to find recorded webstreams of Janice in her twenty-third hour of dancing. I watch as she continuously jumps (high on concentration energy?) and moves into a headstand. She curls up and also flies, a fetus and a bird, a baby learning to walk.

She crawls over her cardboard boundaries and then she begins to peel them off the floor. She pulls them off and rolls, wrapping herself in cardboard.

She is no longer linear and ordered. She is a mad and free woman rolling around in her own walls.


I go to sleep knowing that Janice and Miguel have made it to the end. Hawaii still has an hour left.

This performance has exploded my sense of the time and space in which performance takes place.

What does it mean for a performance to take place in thirty-one different states, simultaneously consolidated onto my one computer screen? What is structure, beginning middle and end, in a twenty-four hour performance that spans six time zones?

What does it mean to be a witness to such a private and, I would imagine, transforming experience?

In what ways am I a witness to the private and public pain caused by war?

And is it enough to be a witness, an audience member?

On India

(I planned to see Pina Bausch’s “Bamboo Blues” so I’d have an excuse to write about India; I decided I could miss the performance and simply write about India instead.)

I start with a sound. An aching, melancholy call to prayer joined by the scratch scratch of a young man sweeping the sidewalk. It is the sound of religion, and class, and dirt.
Before my husband and I arrive in Mumbai, my father’s friend who is Indian and who we have never met asks if this will be our first time. When we answer yes, he says he will be there to pick us up. We find him slightly to the side of the people pushed up against a metal gate waiting for passengers. He greets us with a restrained (and most-loveable) warmth and nods towards a waiting car.

Cigarette in hand, he points out his city as the car lurches its way to our hotel. He sees us in and I am embarrassed by how fancy and western our hotel seems. He says he will meet us in the morning, show us around.

He brings his wife and charges ahead to museums, the zoo, the restaurant. He is funny and warm (I have to use the word again) and cynical. We hear about government and history, flora and fauna, beggars and money and the US. We are jet-lagged and also swept away by his embrace and his plans.

He gives us his time in a way that I couldn’t have imagined. Eases our transition to a foreign world. Is my favorite person I have met in a very long time.

He tells us he grew up an Untouchable.

(When I checked in a few weeks ago, he said he listened for many hours to gunshots during the recent terror attacks. Housed refugees in his apartment.)
My husband and I make our way from Mumbai to Delhi. The physical chaos overtakes me now that we are on our own. The mass of people and cars and motorbikes and bicycles moves fast and furious. I am scared to cross the street.

My body remembers the dance classes I’ve taken in which we practice moving in chaos. In those classes, we learn to stay grounded in the midst of upheaval and the unknown and passionate, crazy dancing. In those classes, we look for the empty space, find ways to slide and swirl around each other, never bumping in.

When my husband and I ride a bicycle rickshaw, our western bums don’t both fit fully on the passenger seat. We half-sit and grip a metal bar. We swerve down roads with cars much faster, and heavier than us. We hit a traffic jam in the old part of Delhi, try to stay in our seats amidst rickshaws and cows and horse-drawn buggies. I notice that I am the only woman not wearing a burka. I feel a little scared. I am a visitor. I am different and I don’t know if I am welcome here. And I remember to find my center, the one that is grounded and resilient, quietly present.

I begin to see the speed and the chaos as a wild and quite functional dance. The people of the city know how to ride this rhythm, just as New Yorkers ride theirs.

In Delhi, I alternate between being timid and being engaged with the city. I walk around walls. (There are so many walls.) And I hide behind them. I walk down tiny alleyways with stray dogs and chickens getting their heads cut off. I enter an old courtyard near a mosque where an old man offers me a candy, nods to the sun. I see a very old dance form in a very new and desolate skyscraper-mall-town. I listen to an electric tabla played by a robot developed in California.

We listen to the call to prayer and the street sweeper from a hotel room in a gated area. Children, many holding children, walk into the middle of the busy smog-ridden streets to tap on the windows of our air-conditioned taxi. As we make our way to the airport, they ask for money.
We go to Varanasi. Ganges River. Hindu holy place in which to die and be cremated. A little girl sells candles to light and float on the river. 10 rupees for good Karma.

The smell of a human body burning. The price and weight of the wood with which to burn the body. Death as a part of life. Commerce as a part of death.

A fat old man and his two skinny dogs, all three barking orders to hotel workers. The white woman wandering around with her sari and bindi, seemingly unmoored and floating on her “spirituality.”

Like a picture from the guidebook, women wash colorful clothes in the river. The rhythm of dunking and twisting, laying out to dry. Sunset. Big black plastic speakers set up along the river blast the soundtrack of Varanasi.
And Calcutta. My father’s friend’s family invites us to a meal. (From Mumbai he’s given his mother instructions about what to make for us. How to welcome us in.) I am so touched, in fact overwhelmed. Again.

And my husband is sick. And I am a bit scared to go to my new friend’s family by myself. It’s something about the pain of feeling things that are so tender and giving. Someone who’s never met me cooking a whole and special meal for me. I don’t even cook for myself. I give in to my fear and cancel, try to find comfort (it isn’t possible) behind a hotel wall.

Calcutta is about realizing how overwhelmed and saturated we are. We traveled to India for my husband’s photography work. He talks about how his work is to be present and porous, to take everything in. When he is photographing, he cannot hold his breath, pull away from gravity, lower his eyes, indulge those things we do to pretend we’re safe and separate and sterile.

We have taken in a lot. And have still managed to pull away from a lot. It has been a study in culture, and contrasts, and comfort.

We are ready to go home. And yet even the concept of home has been forever dislodged and set in motion. How do we find home in our own bodies? In a foreign culture? How do we make a home? What could possibly explain the vast differences between the physical homes of the poor and the rich, in India and in the United States? What millions of factors converged to birth us into our particular families and circumstances?
After 20 hours in flight, we arrive back in the US. Newark smells clean, almost alpine. New York City moves in slow motion. It is obsessively orderly. It is easy. And it is not the same.


See more of Matt's photography for his project, The Global City here.

Read choreographer Jill Sigman's reflections on her trip to India, "A Postmodern Passage" here.

Some related musings and questions on Slumdog Millionaire will be coming soon.

On Garden of Earthly Delights

photo by Glenn Fawcett

I bring my aesthetic-educator-visual-artist husband to Martha Clarke's Garden of Earthly Delights because I want him to tell me about Hieronymus Bosch. I want to hear his perspective on the relationship between Clarke's live work of art and the painting from which she draws inspiration. In going to see this revived (and historic) performance, I look forward to a dialogue about the history of art.

We sit in an audience that is different (more off-Broadway, more money for tickets, more shuffling around in their seats) than we are used to. We engage in a bit of dialogue and I eek out a few opinions about art based on other art. But mostly Matt and I experience a fully sensual and magical theater-going experience:

Lonely, empty wind. Dead branches.
The godly, body-articulate, Jennifer Nugent leading other performers in animalistic, barbie-footed, centaur crawls.
Writhing, twisting, circling, spiraling. tongue licking.
Shiny, reflective Dutch-painter-marley playing with light.
Human pendulums, long-hair-upside-down-people floating back and forth....
Red stick, rain stick penises.
Rolling people, ocean/boats.
Buckets of dead people rags. The plague. Ashes Ashes we all fall down.
Weighted, earthy Breugel waltz.
Blind and stupid. Clunky witch hunt potato famine.
Madrigal, gregorian, remote.
No sense of time (a dream or a painting)
Raping and killing.
Flying and spinning and cackling.
Drum God Thunder
Medusa Dogs
Orgiastic, sensual, sexual, erotic, cello stabbed in the navel. Music as an umbilical cord and death.

And suddenly a branch with green leaves. A beautiful black man floating in the air holding a living tree. An image with new significance as of November 4. It is also an image reminiscent of Waiting for Godot.

Artists and history and extremes of human experience float together on Minetta Lane.

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch; Museo del Prado, Madrid

On Sincerity (related to Trajal Harrell’s “Quartet for the End of Time”)

Trajal Harrell’s new piece drew me into a quiet (though filled with music) world that often bypassed my thoughts and went straight to feeling.

As an audience member, I was challenged in the best of ways. I was trusted to find my own way into the piece. I was given time to find deeper ways to engage repetition, subtlety and presence. I felt safe to find the ways in which my experience and the art could interweave.

I hadn’t expected this. I thought I might be confronted with yet another work that screamed at me (in voice or in body) from the stage, inviting me to feel uncool for actually caring (or showing that I care) about the art and even about life.

In program notes, Harrell’s dramaturg Julie Perrin asks, “ Is sincerity on stage a new form of heroism?”

Reading this question after the performance helped me see why I had responded so strongly to the piece. (A chronically sincere and earnest person, I can’t even get my Facebook updates to have the requisite funny and ironic tone.) And it left me feeling two things: First of all, furious that the question is actually relevant. Second, hopeful that my experimental contemporary dance community could be moving out of a self-absorbed teenager phase (See Andy Horwitz on Culturebot) and into a more thoughtful and mature place. Not a staid or conservative place, but a place with a different kind of engagement.

I felt like I had seen a sincere piece, not a piece about sincerity. And this is interesting. I wonder how much I saw and responded to sincerity because that is what I am interested in seeing and hoping to see.

Harrell’s work takes its name, and some inspiration, from music written by Olivier Messiaen while interned in a prison camp during World War II.

I felt this in the honesty and presence of the piece (at least my impression of the piece). In a prison camp, in the End of Time, in our time, I don’t think there’s time for too-cool, for insincerity. The world needs more than that. When faced with atrocity and death, failed economies and global relationships, even when faced with human kindness and talent, what is the best and truest we can offer?

link to a first response poem on this piece

On Trajal Harrell's "Quartet for the End of Time"


Putting on
(a show, a cover)

Taking off
Taking care of

. . .

On Ivana Muller’s “While We Were Holding It Together” at the FIAF: Crossing the Line Festival

I was scheduled to begin a sitting meditation retreat tonight; I went instead to Ivana Muller’s performance, While We Were Holding It Together, co-presented by DTW and FIAF as part of the Crossing the Line Festival.

Instead of practicing letting go within a monastery, I sat in a theater and watched five performers hold it together.

The five performers sustain the same positions for Muller’s entire 67 minute piece. Their eyes move. They quiver out of muscle fatigue. But it is primarily the movement of their voices and minds that we follow.

(Ivana Muller's While We Were Holding It Together)

(Sitting Meditation Retreat -Sesshin- at Zen Mountain Monastery)

From their frozen tableau, Muller’s performers talk: “I imagine we are all beggars asking for money.” “I imagine we are the last creatures on earth. We’d like to touch each other.” “I imagine I’m an oak tree, and winter is coming.”

Each time the performers make a statement, I see their shapes, their stillness, as something different. My perception of the very same picture shifts enormously. What was a hand becomes a branch or a bus pole or a microphone stand.

The performers imagine things funny, raunchy, tedious. And also big: “I imagine this body doesn’t belong to me.” “I imagine not being able to imagine anymore.”

In a blackout they leave the stage. From offstage we continue to hear them, “ Are we now only thoughts?” “No, we’re still an image…”

Muller looks at the existential questions I grappled with in an apricot tree hideaway as a kid, those same questions that bring me to Zen practice and art practice as an adult. She looks at nothing less than the nature of experience.

The last words we hear, in the black, from offstage, are these: “I imagine we are in this all together.”

And that is why I go to theater.
And that is why I will go to my meditation retreat tomorrow.

At the monastery, I’ll sit still, among other people, and watch the movement of my thoughts and emotions and fantasies. I’ll be asked to question what my body is, what death is, who there is to die.

At least that’s what I imagine I’ll do.

Link here to see a video excerpt