Merce Cunningham!

His comic Antic Meet comes back to life.

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In 1958, before the premiere of Antic Meet, Robert Rauschenberg asked Merce Cunningham to explain his ideas for the new production. "It's like a series of vaudeville scenes," Cunningham wrote, "which overlap." Antic Meet, not seen since 1969, is a highlight of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company's season at the Joyce Theater, which begins Tuesday 22. Set to John Cage's Concert for Piano and Orchestra and featuring props and costumes by Rauschenberg, the revival is part of the troupe's Legacy Tour. (The company will disband in December.) A comic work, Antic Meet is a rarity in the Cunningham canon; in anticipation, a few insiders—including Daniel Madoff and Rashaun Mitchell, who alternate in Cunningham's role—offer a mini oral history.

Daniel Madoff
It's apparent from the video that the piece, for Merce at least, seems to be dramatically driven, which isn't usual. You can just tell by looking at him that the movements are almost secondary to the motivation of what's behind the movement. He plays everything pretty deadpan, but you can tell that there is such vivid inspiration for everything that he does. And you can also probably assume that every time he performed the piece, it was slightly different. There are some firsthand accounts that verified that feeling. [Laughs] It became pretty clear to me that I needed to investigate, not only what exactly what he was doing—stepping left, right, left, right—but, and I hesitate to say this, but why? Why was he doing that? What was the central concept behind each of his actions? I tried to think of it sometimes as if it were a theater piece. There doesn't seem to be really a through-line for his "character," but there seem to be definite choices being made in each of the vignettes.

Sandra Neels (former company member who restaged Antic Meet)
Because my background was tap—and Merce's background was tap—I always learned his pieces rhythmically. One night at dinner with Robert Swinston [director of choreography], I said, "I bet you that I could dance Antic Meet still. I can remember every rhythm that I ever danced in that piece." I moved around to other people's parts; we did it on a world tour and whenever someone got injured, I jumped in. Robert said, "We have an old, very fuzzy video that was taken onstage in Finland in 1964. Do you want to look at it?" The next day, I went into the small studio and began to take notes. It does look like you're watching dances in a blizzard. You couldn't see who anybody was, but I remembered the rhythm of it, so I could tell who was doing what. I said, "Why don't you give me a shot at it?"

Trevor Carlson (executive director, Merce Cunningham Dance Company)
In the late '50s, there was a 25-year retrospective of John Cage's work; that season, he made Concert for Piano and Orchestra, and the composition of that piece was his taking all of the forms of notation and different types of music-making and incorporating each one of them in the score. It was his own retrospective piece in a score. In Antic Meet, Merce took John's music and made a dance that, frankly, is a retrospective of his study of dance up to that point: It's got soft-shoe, acrobatics, ballroom, Graham—everything Merce studied, he built into the choreography. And Rauschenberg also made a retrospective—you find quintessential elements: the umbrella, the parachute, the white dress shirt with black tie, overalls, lace tablecloths, sunglasses...

Christy MacLear (executive director, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation)
I thought it would be a great time to show the costumes, so, like a window display, there will be about a dozen costumes visible from the street [Mar 22--Apr 1] at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation's 19th Street Exhibition Space. The costumes are wonderful! There's the chair that was strapped onto Merce's back—it formed almost a backpack—and then there are billowy costumes made of parachute material: I would call it Chanel meets Lanvin.

Rashaun Mitchell
The costumes are artifacts. In the sweater section, there's a series of trying to fit your arm and your head into the holes, but you never quite find the proper way of wearing it. In between those shifts, women move around [Merce]; it's called "Bacchus," and it's kind of a Graham spoof. He gets tangled up in the sweater. I remember when I was an understudy, I actually worked with the original sweater; it had just been in the basement and it was a little smelly, but I practiced in it a million times. I got it kind of sweaty and at one point I think I even tore it a little bit, so now it's mixed in with my own experience. We have a new sweater now. It's designed the same—there are four sleeves and no head hole—but it's a little less itchy.

Trevor Carlson
This is totally me pulling it out of my ass, but for the longest time I have watched this dance in rehearsal and looked at the footage, and it's always struck me as something of an emotional work. I hear Merce talking about [his dance teacher] Maude Barrett in my head or about being at the Cornish School when an acrobat troupe came through. It makes me feel like I'm walking through Merce's early years as I'm watching the dance. I really think that for all of them this was a midcareer retrospective. I think it was their own sort of inside joke.

Daniel Madoff
In the very opening, the whole company dances together: This group of people are moving very harmoniously and then Merce just saunters onto the stage from the opposite side and clearly has little to no idea what's going on. But he's fascinated by these people—and understand this is conjecture—and it seems like he has no idea what's going on. He's always a step behind everybody else. He pulls a flower out of his sleeve at the end of the first section, and it just comes out of nowhere. He's a foreigner in this land and he's completely rejected. And then he walks off. But when he returns with the chair on his back, he's a completely different character.

Sandra Neels
Merce was not that interested in reconstructions, so [when Neels first started working on it in 2003 with members of the Repertory Understudy Group, including Mitchell] he was at his table in the back just sort of looking sideways at us and pretending not to be interested at all—until he saw Rashaun doing his tap solo. He really liked Rashaun. He was whispering to him and giving him little hints. As soon as he started to do that I thought, He does want this to happen.

Rashaun Mitchell
He didn't really say too much about the part. I think he liked to work that way, to see what the person would do and allow that freedom. I remember him saying things like, "Vary the timing." Or he might give a specific comment about focus, which would inevitably charge it in a specific way, but he never really said much about the steps. That is left up to us and Sandra and Robert to decipher. What is this? Where does the weight shift? But ultimately I think there's a freedom in the part, and I think Merce would have liked us to do it in our own way.

Daniel Madoff
Okay, the section with the chair: When I was first learning the piece, the thing I had to do was to imitate Merce physically, and slowly my own images and ideas started to surface about why was I wearing the chair. At first it was daunting. I was honored to be able to wear that chair—obviously it's amazing, it's a piece of history, but eventually I had to make it my own. Now when I wear the chair, it's my chair. [Laughs] I'm just borrowing it, but in that moment, it can't be Merce's.

Rashaun Mitchell
Like most of Merce's parts, there's a definite idiosyncratic element to his way of moving. He has a lot of fun things to do in the piece. Everyone else—and this is how he worked when he was also in his own pieces—has really specific steps. His are different and kind of subject to...maybe his whim? In the opening, there's a lot of activity going on, and I get the sense that he's wandering around, trying to relate to different people at different times. It seems like Robert Rauschenberg and Merce were having fun with this piece.

Trevor Carlson
My take on why it hasn't been performed in a long time is that Merce respected [Martha] Graham. There was a clear rift there, or uncomfortability, but neither of them talked about it publicly in the same way that neither Paul [Taylor] nor Merce talked about each other publicly. I think so much came out of the performance of this piece, and the aspect of Merce in the sweater doing the Graham-style movement, and the dancers in the parachute dresses doing the cupped hand and contracting everywhere—it was very clearly a spoof. I don't think he wanted to bring back the spoof aspect of it. Merce was witty; he was not a prankster. I think at 40 [when he made Antic Meet], this was funny to him, and later on it probably wasn't witty enough. I love that we brought it back, but I know we wouldn't have brought it back in Merce's lifetime. You might have been able to twist his arm to do it, but I bet he would have rechoreographed that section.

Sandra Neels
I returned in August [to stage the work on the company]. I will tell you quite honestly, coming back to the studio with Merce not there and the dancers having moved so far away from anything that was like Antic Meet, except those who had been in it in '03—they were totally resistant. I had big, big problems. They thought it was corny, so they would all mimic me, mimic it. I explained every section to them and I said, "When I first saw this piece, I knew that this was Merce's history, and that's what we have to go for. It's not corny." When we had to show it, they snapped to it.

Daniel Madoff
Rashaun and I watch each other and share ideas, but I think we have quite a disparate view—in a good way—of what direction we want to take the role. The sweater and the chair are the most famous [sections]; people say he's making fun of Martha Graham. I was one of the lucky dancers to be fired from the Martha Graham Dance Company [for financial reasons], and that's actually what sent me to dance for Merce. I've kind of tapped into that when I wear the sweater and the women come in with their cupped hands; I allow the kind of push and pull between Merce and the women, and I think ultimately the women win. Usually when I dance a Merce role, I acknowledge the fact that Merce was in charge of his company and you could tell that when he was onstage, but in this case I let him be a little defeated. This is something else I think about: I used to take Merce home, and one time he was putting a shirt on. It got hard for him to get his arms behind his back, and he couldn't get it on, and he got really frustrated, and I saw the movement he was doing. That's one of the images I use for the sweater.

Sandra Neels
When I was a dancer, I would come to the studio—I was always early—and I'd sneak up the stairs, and Merce was always in the studio working by himself. He'd be tapping with his jazz shoes on, whistling and doing little tap steps. It was really cool. He didn't know I could see him. Do you know that song, "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody?" He'd be whistling something like that.

Daniel Madoff
[Former Cunningham dancer] Valda Setterfield helped me with [the soft-shoe section]. She said, "What you're doing is good, but I don't remember any edges when Merce danced it. And he stayed long the whole time." So these were over-arching things that I could think about. Everybody says Merce only gave quantitative corrections. Instead of saying, "Why don't you be more flowy when you do this," he would say, "Move bigger and take more time with your arms." If you did what he said, the outcome would be what he wanted. I don't think he liked divulging too much of the more private information about what he was thinking. I also think he didn't want to taint our view. He hardly ever gave imagery, but there was one time that he did when I was dancing Totem Ancestor. He said to me, "It's like you're ducking behind the grass, hunting prey," and I'll never forget that. I don't necessarily believe it when people say his dances are about nothing. I think he did have images; he just didn't want to share them. Or he was sharing them, but he wasn't specific with telling us what they were. One time when I was an understudy, we were working on a trio; he worked with whomever was there. In this case, it started with me and two women, and then there was another man, so we would alternate. So one day, Merce asked for the trio from eyeSpace. I was sitting next to him and I said, "Are you going to want to see this with both men?" and he said yes, and I turned to the women and started to say, "Just so you know, we're going to be doing this twice," and Merce said, "Don't tell them that. What are you doing? We're going to do it once and then we're just going to do it again." [Laughs] But that gives you an idea of the way he worked. He didn't divulge information, but he got you to do what he wanted. I'm sure it had an effect on the work, but I also suspect he had fun doing stuff like that. He was a funny guy.

Rashaun Mitchell
What I think is nice about this is that it's double cast: You get a chance to see different versions. I would recommend people coming to see both—I know it's expensive, but if it's possible for people who really love the work, it's a really nice element that there isn't just one version of something. There isn't just an absolute, and I think Merce would have really liked that.

Daniel Madoff
I finally had to stop watching the video because I didn't want to imitate him anymore. I had to just make a choice. I'm learning more and more to trust my instincts onstage, because this is the kind of piece that requires a genuine reaction or a genuine nonreaction. You can't plan out what you're going to do. There was a letter written from Merce to Robert Rauschenberg, and a lot of information is in that. One thing that he says is that he gets caught not in his costume. So the lights come up and he has the sweater on and he gets caught. I've given a lot of thought to that instant. What does that mean? How do I show that I'm getting caught? Obviously, I know the lights are going to come on. The truth is that it seems the best thing for me to do is let go and let my instincts take over, and they usually don't lead me astray. In performing, probably the number-one thing I've learned is to let myself make decisions. And maybe let myself make some not-good decisions, but if I don't make any decisions then I'm damning the dance to die. And if it doesn't grow, it doesn't seem in the spirit of Merce.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performs at the Joyce Theater Tue 22--Mar 27.

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