Many years ago, I witnessed a LINES Ballet dancer — I believe it was Xavier Ferla — stumble. This was not your ordinary stumble: Ferla went careening and careering backward out of some Tasmanian Devil of a turn, landing on his bum — and it was thrilling. I know what you’re thinking: Sima! You’re so mean! But this wasn’t a case of Schadenfreude, I swear. Rather, it was my response to witnessing a body react differently from what was expected of it. And since Ferla was such a skilled dancer, the reaction was as beautiful as the “correct” response would have been, if not more so.
On Friday evening, November 9, I attended Signals from the West: Bay Area Artists in Conversation with Merce Cunningham at 100, a collaborative, collective effort by Hope Mohr Dance’s The Bridge Project, SFMOMA’s Open Space, the Merce Cunningham Trust, and ODC Theater. If you know anything about Cunningham’s choreography, it is technically merciless. (I couldn’t resist — shout out to Rich Cleland for coining “immerced” during our lobby chat, as in, “I felt totally immerced in the choreography.”) Cunningham wanted dancers to dance the impossible and this meant that even the most gifted, most trained dancer in his company would stumble, shake, or stutter every now and then. These perhaps unwelcome movements humanize those unitard-clad dancers, foregrounding the labor that undergirds the abstraction. (More on abstraction in a forthcoming post.)
But at opening night of the culminating performances of Signals there was nary a misstep. Sarah Cecilia Bukowski, Traci Finch, Emily Hansel, and Stacey Yuen, who danced excerpts of Cunningham’s repertory (rehearsed and staged by former Cunningham dancers Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener), were flawless. Ok, maybe there was some trembling in a standing leg being asked to support a slow motion rond de jambe. But hardly. And sure, a torso might have had to wobble an adjustment in reaction to a tilted promenade in plié coupé. But barely. I was looking forward to witnessing some real struggle. No dice. (Get it? Dice? Chance procedures? Moving on.)
Not that I was disappointed! I could have watched those four women tilt and triplet and leap for hours, which is weird because whenever I attended Cunningham performances in the past, which would indeed last for hours, I’d always pass out at some point. I think I craved seeing more of these dancers because they were just the top and bottom slices of bread that held together a sandwich made up of interdisciplinary conversations with Cunningham’s work, dialogic responses by commissioned Bay Area artists, Sofía Córdova, Maxe Crandall, Alex Escalante, Christy Funsch, Jenny Odell, Julie Moon, Nicole Peisl, Danishta Rivero, Dazaun Soleyn, and Sophia Wang. These responses took different, often surprising approaches to Cunningham’s practice and oeuvre, resulting in works that included video collages of randomness and repetition; audience participation as chance procedure; deconstructions of Cunningham vocabulary; autobiographical spoken and danced text; structured improvisations; a mixed media visual art work composed of artificial lawn grass, styrofoam insulation, plexiglass, and paper; and a “soap opera suite,” “commercial melodrama” created by “cycling [Cunningham] through a genre likewise defined by modern style, endless repetition, and unsung virtuosity” (why write new words when Crandall offers the best words?).
I’m a native New Yorker, who took a class or two at the Cunningham studio in the late 80s. I started my dance life above a pizzeria in Brooklyn at the Blanche Curtis School of Dance, took dance instead of PE throughout high school with Mr. John Goring, and went to STEPS and Dance Space (now Dance New Amsterdam) on visits home from college (Ray Tadio, himself a signal from the West, and Michael Foley were my faves). But the Bay Area is my dance home. So I was moved to see friends old and new, as well as folks I’ve yet to meet, make work in response to this luminary that reflects something of the spirit of this place.
A video of Funsch reciting 100 influences on her dance life while Nol Simonse dances a mash-up of excerpts from their 19-year collaboration and Courtney Morena coils up a tangle of audio cords. Córdova’s trance-inducing video collage of cycling, vibrating, stacking, shifting cut outs “guided by the stages of the sun and moon” and refractive of post-partum life. A semi-circle of audience members invited to press pause on Peisl’s spasmodic deconstruction of Cunningham vocabulary. A video of Wang with long-time collaborator Brontez Purnell evoking the cut outs in Córdova’s video, bouncing in out of both the larger frame and a series of smaller frames, “temporary architectures” designed to escape capture. Karla Quintero, Danny Thanh Nguyen, and Moon joining Crandall in a soap operatic romp replete with an impresario, a diva, an ingenue, and a leather daddy with an alarmingly long (and loud) whip. There was more. I stop here in part because my memory fails, in part because some works felt like the kind of stumbles I don’t yet have the knowledge or vocabulary to describe.
The stumbles and stabilities of Signals got me thinking about choreography as an invitation to stumble. And if I haven’t yet made this perfectly clear, I absolutely love it when consummate performers stumble. I don’t know many performers who feel the same way, especially when they themselves are the ones on the wobble; they take pleasure in not falling off their leg in a balance or when slowing down out of turn to rest on one leg, and they suffer when they add an extra hop to avoid falling, like a gymnast landing a vault. But dance is not gymnastics; as a viewer, I’m certainly not deducting tenths of points for that hop or shaky standing leg, not even for the full face plant that results from some slick-with-sweat marley. In fact, I’m enlivened by the liveness, moved by the potentiality of movement.
A dancer performs a tilted back attitude turn that begins fast and then slows to suspend on one leg before brushing through to the next movement. It’s so satisfying when that suspension lasts and lasts. But that turn can also go too fast and the dancer can lose control — a little, a lot — and that can be a pleasure too because how does the dancer know, how does any of us know what awaits the end of that turn? And how can the dancer enjoy, how can we enjoy the surprise: Today I had to put my foot down — how did that feel? I’m not suggesting the old, “Oh, I meant to do that” cover-up. I’m suggesting we embrace the stumble, the stutter, the hop, the slip as the vulnerable norms of our precarious existence.
In the beautiful “Already & Not Yet: Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener in Conversation with Claudia La Rocco” on the Open Space blog, the three friends reflect on Cunningham’s legacy and its limitations, on how our artistic parents (as well as the people who actually raised us) “didn’t get it all right.” I’m trying to make a connection between the fact and value of not getting it all right and the dancer’s stumble. Dancers dancing choreography may always hate it when they stumble. This may be less an ego trip than an effect of the idea that choreography is an ideal that precedes the dance. But if choreography is an invitation to the dance and not the dance itself, or if Cunningham repertory is an invitation to new work and not the work itself, then maybe we don’t have to struggle to get it all right, to remain upright. Maybe we can stumble gracefully.