Merce Cunningham Legacy Tour Offers Stunning Evening in Miami

Merce Cunningham Legacy Tour Offers Stunning Evening in Miami
On the opening night of the latest Merce Cunningham Dance Company performance — which runs through tomorrow at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center — the doors to the theater opened and everyone gasped.

There was a problem. Our tickets featured seat assignments, but a kind of foreign body had taken over the auditorium’s rows of chairs. This sculptural impediment was the work of Brooklyn-based, Florida-born artist Daniel Arsham, who began collaborating with Cunningham on sets in 2007 when he was 24 and the late choreographer was 84. For this performance, Arsham had installed a mountain of white platonic solids, a mound of convex shapes that towered above the people filtering into the hall. Peering up into the balconies, one could spot individual polygonal forms peeking out from shadowy seats, as if creeping toward the mass in the center of the room.

“Standing room only,” one of the ushers said ominously as we filed onto the stage, bare except for a series of carpeted runways on which we were not allowed to step. These pathways connected three rectangular performance areas marked off with tape, one slightly submerged, one at ground level, and one slightly elevated. Everyone began wandering around, vying for a good spot, whatever that might mean in this alien setting where cubes stole your seats and front and back were seemingly reversed.

Audience members began hassling the already anxious, surly ushers (who continuously had to drag people away from what would become the path of the dancers) trying to pry out of them the location from which the performers would emerge. Such queries were silenced as the musicians of Sonic Combine — a trio that worked with Cunningham collaborator Robert Rauschenberg — from the peripheries of the stage, armed with some very strange-looking instruments, began to play atonal music. A sound technician blasted these disorienting sounds from speakers hidden all throughout the stage and its wings — our stomping ground for the duration of the performance — around which we had been invited to continuously stroll during the 30-minute show.

The dancers marched out, making a tour of the stage, the audience scrambling after them. Then suddenly, in the signature puckish style of the late choreographer, dances began on all three platforms at once, making it impossible to see everything, endowing every viewing angle with its own merits and drawbacks. It felt as if we were at the front of some strange war zone. The Platonic shapes were invading our space, and we were being pushed into forbidden frontiers, only to find ourselves in the midst of the strange and powerful spandex-wearing natives. (The brightly-dyed unitards are, in fact, the original Robert Rauschenberg costumes designed for Cunningham’s 2000 piece “Interscape”).

As the stunning dance unfolded, certain intriguing trends became noticeable in the movements of the audience. Choreographies with men in them gathered more viewers than women-only dances. The largest, central space garnered the most gawkers, while any stage that featured a large group of dancers immediately drew a crowd. Robert Swinston, the director of the company since Cunningham’s death in 2009, danced along with his young students and was absolutely wonderful, exuding all the joy, intense humor, and physical strain Cunningham dances usually involve. And somehow Swinston added to all of this the melancholy inherent in these "Legacy Tour" performances, which serve as a kind of elegy for the late dancer and for his company, which will disband after a final performance on December 31, 2011.

About fifteen minutes in, I realized with a jolt that I’d forgotten about Arsham’s installation. Turning to look back at it, however, I realized that its presence had, throughout the dance, altered my experience of the entire space, as so many of Arsham’s architectural intervention-based works do. I began to notice how the light grew brighter on the sculptural mountain as it dimmed on stage and then was nearly extinguished over the seats as it dawned over the dancers. It began to feel as if this was all a part of the new world that Arsham had made real. The Platonic mound began to feel comfortable; the fantastical became normalized.

Then, harsh lights blasted the hidden mechanics of the stage, and its rigging, the theatrical equipment usually hidden from view was brought into full relief. Suddenly it was these apparatuses that were strange, not Arsham’s installation. There was a polyester pirate flag hanging from the exposed network of ropes that covered one interior stage wall, a kind of brigand banner for the frightening inner workings of the theater. The brief performance ended just in time — I felt about ready to run from the haunted ship the stage had become thanks to the spectacular transformative power of Arsham’s work and Cunningham’s dance, ready to flee back to a world of comforting clean white cubes and spheres.