Merce Cunningham’s choreography can be ambiguous, mysterious, and uniquely beautiful, so to see a Cunningham work just once, as I did a number of times during his company’s final year before disbandment, can be bittersweet. On June 8, however, an enthusiastic audience of only a few dozen gathered at New York City Center’s fifth-floor studio to enjoy an uncommon luxury: two consecutive performances of Cunningham’s Place (1966), each with different dancers.
This showing was the first in a series made possible by an exciting new program of the Cunningham Trust, which recently awarded fellowships to four former company members who, under the supervision of Robert Swinston, will restage a Cunningham work of their choice for pre-professional dance students. (The performances also will be filmed for preservation purposes.) Place, a 23-minute work for eight dancers not seen since 1971, was mounted by Sandra Neels, a company member from 1963 to 1973 and a member of the original cast.
It’s never wise to force narrative on a Cunningham dance, but finding a story in Place is unavoidable. There are moments of joy in this world — spirited folk dancing, a brief glimpse of ballroom tango — but the work’s most memorable images suggest people afflicted by loneliness, remoteness, and anxiety.
At the center of the dance is one man (Cunningham in the original cast) who struggles to connect with the people around him. He often appears alone onstage, and when he first encounters a woman, he stands behind her and their bodies arch back and forth in profile without touching. In a later passage, women lie flat on their backs while men hover over them as if preparing for push-ups (or physical intimacy), and after the men rise one by one and arbitrarily swap partners, the protagonist is the last to act, finding his new mate not by choice but by default. Other steps of his hint that dark forces, perhaps psychological or physiological, are at work. Spasms course through his arms, threatening his equilibrium as he moves slowly through a series of arabesques and balances.
The others, too, experience moments of detachment. In a particularly powerful section, all eight dancers gradually travel across the stage in a cluster, one at a time and with unique steps. A woman kicks a leg high in front of her and abruptly raises a hand to shield her face before halting. Another woman struts through, exaggeratedly swiveling her legs and hips. A man hops by stiffly, almost comically. The cycle repeats three times. Each dancer navigates the forest of frozen forms alone, narrowly avoiding bodily contact. Maybe it really is easier to feel alone in a crowded room.
More disturbing still is the finale, which resembles nothing else I’ve seen in the Cunningham repertory. The protagonist, alone again, produces a large plastic bag, opens it frantically, and crawls inside. For a few seconds, he thrashes around on the floor — his control, his freedom, and his grace have now left him — before rolling to the rear edge of the stage and lying motionless. Has he given in to madness? Or could this be a suicide? Whatever has happened, it seems both tragic and irrevocable. He is lost, while the others, now offstage, carry on.