The choreographer Merce Cunningham would have turned 100 years old this week. And so his revolutionary legacy in dance was commemorated with special performances in London, New York and Los Angeles called Night of 100 Solos.
As 25 performers rehearsed the program recently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the studio was almost eerily silent — save for the sound of dancers walking, running and jumping. They were ballet dancers, modern dancers, hip-hop dancers. Most had never performed Cunningham’s rigorous, idiosyncratic choreography in public.
After the run-through, Patricia Lent, who staged the Brooklyn performance, gave notes to the dancers. Lent danced with Merce Cunningham for 10 years; Night of 100 Solos was her idea.
“And the solos come from all the different decades of Merce’s work,” Lent said. “So the earliest one we have is from the early ’50s and the latest one we have is from his last dance in 2009.”
Cunningham had a unique vision, beginning with his relationship to music. He did the choreography without it, then brought all the production elements — music, costumes and scenery — together at the performance.
Ken Tabachnick, who runs the Merce Cunningham Trust, says it was an idea the choreographer worked on with composer John Cage, who was Cunningham’s most frequent collaborator, as well as his partner in life.
“They developed a structure that people refer to as ‘common time,’ where the different elements would be created discreetly and individually apart from each other, and only come together in the common time of the performance,” Tabachnick said.
Keith Sabado has danced with the companies of famed choreographers Mark Morris and Lucinda Childs, so he normally matches steps to music. He was one of the dancers selected for the Brooklyn show.
“Cunningham technique has its own music,” Sabado said. “You just have to find it, and then you have to put your own body into it.”
He explained further: “There’s a lot of stillness and then explosion — lots of juxtaposed silent moments and then moments where they’re just crazy, crazy, crazy. But, also, you can see, when you watch the work, that the body parts are all correlated to each other, but they may be doing very different things.”
Body parts doing different things at the same time are another essential aspect of Cunningham’s technique, said Ken Tabachnick.
“Cunningham separated the individual limbs and made them independent participants in the movement and technique,” he said. “So, the hands oftentime, or the arms, were completely separate, in terms of their movement, from what the legs were doing, or the lower half the body was doing.”
That can be really challenging for dancers who aren’t used to it. Sara Mearns is a principal for the New York City Ballet.
“It’s finding the strength between your legs and your back together,” Mearns said. “Because when you land, you sometimes have to land and stay there in a plié, [or] in an arabesque for, like, eight counts. And I don’t have to do that in ballet.”
Mearns said she’s been fascinated by the way Patricia Lent has staged the event. Sometimes two, three, five dancers are performing different solos at once.
“I think it’s more interesting in that way to see two people doing something completely different, and different timings, next to each other,” Mearns said. “If someone’s moving so slow, it makes the other person’s solo moving fast look even faster.”
The unexpected connections and dialogue between the dances and the other elements came clear at the performance in Brooklyn.
The 25 dancers, in solid-colored unitards and pantsuits, performed their solos with newly composed music before a sold-out house — and to audiences watching the performance live online. Dancer Keith Sabado said he’s been grateful to be part of the Cunningham centennial tribute.
“I think of him as a father figure in modern dance terms,” Sabado said. “And I really appreciate that I’m getting this opportunity to commune with him, to converse with him again under these circumstances.”
Viewers can commune with Merce Cunningham by watching videos of the Brooklyn, London and LA performances at mercecunningham.org.
Ted Robbins edited this story for broadcast.