One of Instagram's best accounts is one called "mercetrust," the official Instagram handle of the Merce Cunningham Trust. There are many clips of Merce Cunningham himself dancing. It's not an exaggeration to say that he is one of the greatest dancers of all time. His signature movements – raising one's foot on high demi-pointe while extending a leg forward and balancing in sculptural stillness, the astonishing array of direction-changing jumps, the deep squats into the floor – those are moves that when danced by him and his amazing dance troupe look as natural as breathing.

The Washington Ballet in <i>Duets</i> © Dean Alexander
The Washington Ballet in Duets
© Dean Alexander

Cunningham's ability to take a shape, hold it, and just as quickly change to another shape without viewers being able to detect the transition reminds one of the great ballet teacher Enrico Cecchetti's admonition, "“Aim at softness and ease in your performance of dance. Endeavor that all shall be harmonious. However hard you work at your lessons or at rehearsals let none of this effort be visible in your performance. There must be no sign of concentration, exertion, or tension. All must be free and natural. For the true art is that which conceals the labor that produced it." Cunningham was well aware of his own irreplaceability. He ordered that his company be disbanded three years after his death in 2009.

However 2019 is the Cunningham centennial and that means a lot of celebrations, events and revivals of his works. The Joyce Theater had three separate dance companies dance three of his most famous works in their celebration of the dance master. The French troupe Centre national de danse contemporaine – Angers (CNDC) danced Suite for Five (1956), Ballet West danced Summerspace (1958), and Washington Ballet danced Duets (1980).

All three companies tried hard to master the Cunningham style, all three companies gave decent performances, yet all three dance companies visibly struggled with the steps. It wasn't just one dancer, it was across the board. When doing those rises on demi-pointe with the free leg outstretched in a balance, there were wobbly legs, shaking feet, tension in the upper body. One dancer tried a deep squat to the floor but slipped and had to put her hand down before truly falling. The jumps were also a struggle: a Cunningham's favorite is one where the dancer's leg is stretched in arabesque while the jumping leg is completely bent and then has to fold inwards midair before landing and jumping again. One saw and heard too many loud thud-like landings, too much strain.

Joshua Whitehead of Ballet West in Merce Cunningham's <i>Summerspace</i> © Beau Pearson
Joshua Whitehead of Ballet West in Merce Cunningham's Summerspace
© Beau Pearson

The Washington Ballet overall had the easiest time with Cunningham's steps. The performance was not really idiomatic – the dancers gave away their ballet origins with their perfect turnout and occasional audience-facing smiling – but the dancers mostly conveyed the joy of Cunningham's Duets and concealed the strain. The seven duets were delightful; the percussive score was hard to listen to at first but gradually sounded playful and even happy.

Ballet West danced Summerspace, which is unusual for Cunningham in that there is somewhat of a concrete ambience, both the score, the costumes and the sets suggesting some sort of animal kingdom. The dancers sometimes crawl like insects and at other times fly like birds. At one point a dancer even wriggles his fingers to the sound of birdsong. It's reminiscent of a similar movement in Bournonville's La Sylphide. Ballet West has beautiful, lithe dancers who look like fashion models. With that being said, the whole performance was marred by too many visible bobbles and mistakes. It will be interesting to compare this performance to New York City Ballet's revival of the same work next season.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company in <i>Suite for Five</i> © Douglas H. Jeffery (1964)
Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Suite for Five
© Douglas H. Jeffery (1964)

CNDC's Suite for Five was not a bad performance except for when a dancer had the thankless task of recreating the two Merce Cunningham solos. Carlo Schaivo tried hard, but again, the wobbly legs, the shaking foot, the noticeable gear shifting between poses, all took one out of the moment of the dance.

Despite the uneven performances, the evening offered a painful reminder: the future of Cunningham's opus is fragile and delicate. With his own company disbanded, his future is in the hands of dancers who are not trained in his technique and did not have the good fortune of working directly with the great choreographer. His works are not as easily absorbed by different companies as, say, Paul Taylor's works. The extremely unique technique, the difficult-to-love John Cage scores, the austerity of his works makes it less likely for different companies to pick up his works in a bid for commercial success. The Joyce Theater performances indicate that for dance companies around the world, "Merce-ism" is still very much a work in progress.

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