This performance kicked off a unique, three-city, same-day celebration of the centenary of Merce Cunningham’s birth; London being quickly followed across the time zones by similar events in New York and then Los Angeles. Each part of the triptych featured 25 adult dancers of varying ages, performing 100 solos extracted from Cunningham’s extensive repertoire. In keeping with Cunningham’s principles, the dancers at each venue had rehearsed in silence, only hearing the music – three different soundscapes, created in each city by a team led by a former Cunningham musician – as they performed; and each featuring a digital projection by a visual artist. At the Barbican, the film, designed by Richard Hamilton (originally for a Barbican event, in 2005) under the title, Shadows cast by readymades, was an appropriate ghost of Rauschenberg past.

Hannah Kidd, Siobhan Davies, and Billy Trevit © Stephen Wright
Hannah Kidd, Siobhan Davies, and Billy Trevit
© Stephen Wright

The 100 solos were extracted from 54 original works by Cunningham, the earliest of which was Dime a Dance (1953) all the way through to the Nearly Ninety piece, made in the year of his death (2009). In a neat synergy, the programme included contributions from all four of the works with which Merce’s company made its first UK appearance – at Sadler’s Wells – in 1964; and solos from fifteen Cunningham pieces that have been performed at the Barbican since the company first appeared in this theatre, in 1998 (also including the unforgettable clock countdown of Ocean, being a Barbican co-commission but performed at the Roundhouse). Five other works represented in this collage were also co-commissioned by the Barbican, demonstrating the strength of this relationship over the final years of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which came to an orderly end in 2011. The responsibility for preserving and enhancing the Cunningham legacy is sustained by the Merce Cunningham Trust, which organised this centennial celebration.

Asha Thomas © Stephen Wright
Asha Thomas
© Stephen Wright

Cunningham made it nine-tenths of the way to his century. I last saw him on this stage, presiding over a game of chance from his wheelchair, directing a lottery to determine the order of three choreographies and the music that would accompany them (as I recall, in any permutation). Lots were drawn by an elite of British modern choreographers, including Richard Alston and Siobhan Davies.

It was especially pleasing to see the ever-elegant, commanding presence of Davies back on this stage; now amongst the performers. The fortunate 25 spanned almost half-a-century in age range and, although at first it seemed that many were former Rambert dancers, this turned out to be an illusion perhaps encouraged by an ebullient, eye-catching opening solo from Estela Merlos and an intense contribution by Jonathan Goddard. In fact, there were a similar number of less readily recognisable participants from Centre Chorégraphique National – Ballet de Lorraine. Among many others were three dancers from The Royal Ballet (Francesca Hayward, Joseph Sissens and Beatriz Stix-Brunell) and Sophie Martin of Scottish Ballet. Whatever the dancers’ background, there was a universal clarity of Cunningham technique and flow aligned with power, balance and stamina.

Joseph Sissens © Stephen Wright
Joseph Sissens
© Stephen Wright

Both the original BalletBoyz, Michael Nunn and Billy Trevitt, dusted off their trademark charisma, performing in sky blue outfits resembling the uniforms of hospital orderlies; the latter dancing an extract from Summerspace (hopping leg extensions to the side and deep reverential lunge), and later performing in a replica of Rauschenberg’s body harness festooned with tin cans that rattled and jumped with his movements. The wide range of costumes – full-body unitards, thigh-creasing tight shorts, loose tops and trousers – came in a generous palette of colours.

As always, some real-time artistic choices lay with the performers themselves, making the whole event entirely unique and unrepeatable. Given that the dancers did not hear the music until the same moment as the audience, I guess they could have danced to someone reciting the yellow pages. This particular industrial soundscape, peppered by refreshing bouts of silence, was directed by John King, coordinated by Christian Wolff and played by him alongside four other musicians.

Francesca Hayward © Stephen Wright
Francesca Hayward
© Stephen Wright

A Night of 100 Solos sounds like an unadventurous and unending gala, but the actuality was a slick, beautifully-paced collage that had a tireless and fluid momentum. There were actual solos, with just a single dancer on stage, but more often they were being performed simultaneously, or overlapped, in pairs and other multiples. The staging by Daniel Squire (assisted by Ashley Chen and Cheryl Therrien) had the impact of alchemizing a new full-length work by Cunningham from these many and varied ingredients.

Catherine LeGrand and Beatriz Stix-Brunel © Stephen Wright
Catherine LeGrand and Beatriz Stix-Brunel
© Stephen Wright

I have always admired the unique voice that exists throughout Cunningham’s choreography, but the same ascetic discipline that makes it so has often failed to fill me with warmth. There have been notable exceptions, such as the aforementioned Ocean, Pond Way and the gestural, vaudevillian flair of Antic Meet – all of which are appropriately referenced here, including Hayward performing the zig-zag "umbrella" solo from the latter. This glorious treasure chest has a golden thread flowing through it, achieving a unique, magical, mostly tranquil, often playful, always benevolent “Event”.

****1