Baryshnikov Arts Center
BAC invites writers to interview our Resident Artists and observe them working in the studio. The resulting BAC Story essays offer an intimate behind-the-scenes look at the creative process.
Apr 8, 2016
“In Merce’s work, front is constantly changing. You have to imagine you’re dancing alone,” Andrea Weber tells me on a break between class and rehearsal in the sixth-floor BAC studio, named for Cunningham and his partner, John Cage. It’s the first of a three-week residency Weber and Patricia Lent lead for the Merce Cunningham Trust.
With 17 dancers, they’ll reconstruct Suite for Five (1956) and Fabrications (1987).
“Suite teaches dancers to hold space. I was terrified when I first danced it.” It’s hard to imagine Weber scared of anything. Her body has so much power it feels like it’s rushing out of her, even as we relax on the studio floor.
I lean into the mirror and wonder, What exactly about Cunningham’s work is frightening? Is it that what’s in front is always shifting? Is it this idea of dancing alone while still in a group?
Rehearsal begins and dancers rush to their places, quietly stand alone. Outside music bleeds through the tall windows: shouts, horns, Hudson Yard construction. A trio pushes and pulls up - and downstage, makes gathering gestures with their arms. At the end of a solo Weber calls out, “It’s about 45 seconds too slow.”
She’s been keeping time on her phone. Occasionally she snaps her fingers or talks in rhythm to convey timing. As is customary, the dancers will work with the score, Cage’s Music for Piano the day before the performance.
“You don’t want to get there too early,” Weber says at the end of the run-through, and I think of how I like it when, at the end of a Cunningham piece, the choreography and music don’t finish simultaneously. It is then we see the truth of life, terrifying as it is: time and space don’t align perfectly.
I’m on the floor again, this time with Lent. She leans her long, fit body forward, excited to talk about dancing. Lent originated a role in Fabrications. “The dance was constructed not so much with a plan as an itinerary. With chance procedure, Merce created puzzles to solve. I think the goal was to go as far as he could, until he had to finish it.
“‘I always start with movement,’ Merce would say. I think he was speaking practically, not philosophically. When he made Fabrications, he began with the movement material, then the structure, phrases, and casting. The dance is made up of 64 phrases, and paired groups. There’s a sense of warmth to the work, maybe because it’s not in unitards, but silk dresses, pants, and shirts. And because of the increasing contact the dancers make. They keep changing partners. In the 20 sections, there are five ‘scenes’ labeled for the nine permanent emotions of Hindu aesthetics. One episode is unlabeled. Fear repeats. The others are anger and sorrow.”
Lent cleans her glasses. The dancers begin. The wide composition demands that I get up from the floor and sit in a chair. The only time I use this much of my eyesight is when I’m dancing. I watch the circular shapes, pathways, and formations. The vocabulary is fresh on these bright, joyful dancers. In previous rehearsals Lent directed the dancers to, “Push contrasts and don’t be afraid to make noise, be bigger.”
Fabrications is loud now, and moody. There’s a sudden waltz; an intense duet that begins on the floor; a jumping quartet for men, one woman leading; a whirling trio that repeats and travels on a diagonal; a duet for a woman bending backwards, forearm to forehead, a man supporting her; a sextet for men; a leaning adagio for nearly all of the couples; a short walking, bending, and kneeling solo that comes halfway through the work, which Cunningham made for himself. The solo seems to split the work apart.
At the end of rehearsal I ask Christian Allen to speak about dancing Cunningham’s solo. “It’s about setting the pace, creating a world where I can explore energy and impulses.”
We’re standing in the middle of the room, and I’ve forgotten that music, Short Waves and SBbr by Emanuel Dimas de Melo Pimenta, will accompany the piece. I listen now to the dancers pack their stuff: socks and sweatshirts, papaya slices and telephones, notebooks with sweat droplets. It’s in the creation, the putting together of things—bodies, shapes, sounds, rhythms, colors—that we find truth. Outside the light changes in Hudson Yards. A new city is being built.
Ian Spencer Bell is a dancer, choreographer, and poet.