Cunningham and the Classics

November 28, 2001

Last Saturday, I went to see the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Nearly Ninety, and I was pretty blown away.  During the 80-minute piece, the dancers’ energy never flagged or faded, and the ever-shifting patterns onstage continuously delighted my eye.  Cunningham’s choreography is in some ways so very abstract and stark, but in others, it reminded so much of modern dance’s classical roots. In general, the piece included many ballet positions and steps such as chaine turns, attitudes and arabesques, and even bourrees.  There were high extensions and beautifully pointed feet.  There was also not much floor work, the dancers remaining pretty vertical most of the time.


More specifically, though, Cunningham’s spare costumes and set, as well as the some of the choreography, reminded me of Balanchine’s leotard ballets.  Like Balanchine, Cunningham employed a no-frills approach to this piece, showing that simple steps, finely and creatively executed, could be beautiful and highly interesting.  For example, the opening minutes of Nearly Ninety consisted of several pairs of dancers moving slowly across the stage in a repeating sequence of simple attitudes, arabesques, and contractions.  There was nothing particularly spectacular about the steps themselves, but the way in which the pairs were arranged on the stage, and the timing of their entrances, made the movement so.  I was reminded of Balanchine’s aesthetic throughout the performance, during the partnering and ensemble sections especially, as the dancers placement and direction shifted constantly.  Both Cunningham and Balanchine seemed to have loved experimenting with the concept of how to just arrange bodies in space, and that simple idea bore marvelous fruit.