The End of a Dancing Era Captured On Paper
For 58 years, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company has awed international audiences with its unforgettable dance performances. Little more than two years following Merce Cunningham’s death, the Company will formally disband on New Year’s Eve with their final performance in New York.
Known for being a forerunner in modern dance and music, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company is an integral part of the current age of dance. Merce Cunningham, who had already built a reputation as a prominent professional dancer, formed the company in 1953. Since then, Cunningham’s choreography on stage has forged a new path in dance technique and body movement.
Cunningham revolutionized dance by separating movement from music. With life partner and composer John Cage, Cunningham developed a “rhythmic structure” that allows movements to occur within musical time without having to fit the choreography to each note in the music. This idea combined with the use of DanceForms, a computer that generates new combinations of movements, resulted in unusual choreography. “Beach Birds,” for example, explores the very non-human, maladroit movements that seabirds might make while traveling across the beach.
Cunningham passed away at the age of 90 in 2009. Shortly after, the dance company began formulating a Legacy Plan to continue Cunningham’s work. Part of the plan was a two-year international farewell tour, which will end on Saturday at the Park Avenue Armory.
Artist Kenneth E. Parris has documented the Company’s final, two-year-long tour through snapshots and sketches of quiet moments off-stage.
“I’ve always been interested in what drives people to get out of bed in the morning and do what they do,” Parris said.
The New York Times’ Arts Beat Blog published Parris’ sketches as part of a weekly series titled Drawing Dance. As a last tribute to the Company, Parris will exhibit his work at the Chashama art gallery.
Parris first became involved with the company through his wife Melissa Toogood, a Merce Cunningham dancer, who eventually led him to the idea for the project.
“It was really through Melissa that I saw what it really takes to perform at this level day in, day out,” Parris said. “That physicality and that struggle, working through the injuries and the chronic pain, and how physically and emotionally challenging it is.”
Parris envisioned capturing moments off stage through his drawings, showing both the challenges and the passion that exist within such a tightly knit group of performers.
“I didn’t even really know if this was even going to work,” Parris said. “I didn’t know if the dancers would get frustrated with me halfway through and not want to work with me anymore.”
He proposed the project to the company in 2009, the company accepted, and Parris started touring with them in February 2010. Since then, Parris has produced about 43 charcoal and graphite sketches of the dancers.
“This tour has been raw energy and raw emotion,” Parris said. “What they do is so powerful.”
In the same vein as a documentary filmmaker, the hardest part for Parris was to capture moments off stage without his subjects posing for the camera.
“Something I’ve learned is that performers are keenly aware of an audience,” Parris said of the dancers.
However, Parris’ sketches truly depict the raw emotion off stage that Cunningham became so famous for creating on stage. His sketches embody the myriad of emotions that performers face, along with the deep connection that comes with being a part of a team.
“It was exciting to see how much they love what they do,” Parris said. “But I also think I was learning how they work together as a group, how they take care of each other on and off stage. I loved that aspect of what they do. The fact that they’re contributing to something that’s bigger than themselves.”
Saturday will be the last chance for the world to see the company on stage; however, Parris will continue to work on various projects that involve his experiences with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.
“We sort of live in this world where we glorify individualism, and here, these people work together daily. They’re with each other all the time. There’s this camaraderie. It’s sort of like a family, like brothers and sisters. They argue with each other, they make up, they help each other, and they take care of each other, too. I just found that interesting and felt I could capture that ethos more off the stage.”
See the Merce Cunningham Dance Company for their final performance this Saturday at the Park Avenue Armory. For more information about Parris’ exhibition, visit www.chashama.org or go to the artist’s website at www.parris3.com.