Muscle Memory: Reflections on Audience, Legacy, and Merce Cunningham’s Rainforest

Prepping for class tomorrow, I stumbled upon an old (somewhat overwrought) piece of writing. Seems like something to throw out into the universe before teaching Cage and Cunningham to a new group of students…


For the first time in my life, I pause outside a theater and take a snapshot of the marquee:


It seems important, somehow, to mark the moment with something permanent, even if it’s just a picture on my phone. I know it’s antithetical to Merce’s views, after all, perhaps his most oft quoted line claims that dance “gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive” (Cunningham and Starr). But tonight, memory seems important. As the company’s performance tour slides into its final weeks, I find myself trying to hang on to even a small piece of the archive.

The music begins, computers and musicians visible in the pit below but the curtain remains closed. When it rises, the scene feels equally familiar and jarring—Warhol’s Mylar balloons, seen in a thousand photographs, come to life. Marcie and Rashaun, the one sitting, the other hovering above, twist and reach and stretch their arms, inhabiting the roles made on Merce’s and Barbara’s bodies. Brandon stands, in Albert’s place, stoic and still behind them.  

 I settle myself into my (very high up) seat in the Paramount Theater in Seattle and look around. It’s a stunning space, full of gilded chandeliers and velvet seats. Hardly the type of venue one pictures in laid-back Seattle. I reflect on the many seats and cities I’ve nestled into to watch this company: the Joyce in New York, the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris (twice), the Annenburg Center in Philadelphia, Dia: Beacon in Beacon, NY (thrice), the Brooklyn Academy of Music, back in New York, and now, here, in Seattle. The times and spaces of these viewings recast the works—snippets of “RainForest” seen while standing amongst the rolled-steel of Richard Serra’s sculptures loom up, like a once forgotten photo, as the dancers move.

The balloons make more noise than I would’ve thought, bouncing around the stage. Within moments, before Brandon even begins to move or Rashaun contorts Marcie into a lunge and lowers himself to the floor, most of them topple into the pit. I imagine the chorography of the musicians, avoiding the silver squares, falling like the rain in the Washington forests for which the piece is named.

Behind me it seems that all the freshmen from Cornish are gathered, sent to pay tribute to their most famous alum. They chatter animatedly, and I’m suddenly in the Joyce, about to see “Crises,” and the Company, for the first time, with my own set of collegiate girlfriends. I wonder whatever happened to the photos from that night—weren’t there some from in the subway? They must be saved somewhere on Facebook. I spot a familiar face—a girl I danced with in another life—and say hello. We chat about the company and I let drop that I once upon a time worked in their office, once upon a time mingled with the dancers and chatted with Merce. (He wanted to know what exactly I did in his company. Make photocopies, I replied). The effect is immediate. Suddenly, to her, I’ve become someone different: someone who’s touched a bit of history, even if only though the glass of a copy machine.

 Silas walks slowly in, taking the steps his teacher, Gus, once did. He kneels over Marcie who now lays, spread out on Brandon’s body.   He kneels and nudges her, once, twice, three times, with his head, both caressing her and urging her to move. She begins to roll off of Brandon as Silas stands, gesturing her forward with his hands and arms outstretched, palms ups.

I lay out my notebook and pen, thinking even as I do, that I don’t need to take too many notes—the 1968 video is online after all. Merce captured on film for all time. I can just note down who’s doing each part, I think, perhaps some details like what the balloons do in tonight’s show and I’m good to go: ready to head home and type up the events for Susan’s class. I realize, of course, the absurdity of these musings even as I think them—the film is a two-dimensional picture of a different company 30 years ago and tonight is a live performance, with twenty-year- old bodies who take pictures on their iPhones filling the stage and audience. But it feels equally absurd to take too many notes—they never really seem to help after the fact and I tend to miss more than I catch. The dance comes back in bits and pieces of memory no matter what I jot down, and I know I’ll watch the video anyway, allowing the two sets of images to converge in my mind.

Jennifer runs and jumps into Brandon’s arms, her body twisting around his neck, his arms behind her knees and around her back. He drops his arms from her back and there it is: the photograph of Carolyn and Chase swinging, her arms outstretched, her back curved as he counterbalances her weight, thrusting his hips forward.

It’s the first time I’ve seen the company since April 2009—since then, they’ve travelled to a dozen countries, performed hundreds of times, and lost their leader. They’ve also lost—to politics and injury—many of their dancers. About half the dancers I’m watching on stage now were RUGs (Repertory Understudy Group members) when I worked for the company, and many of my favorite dancers—Holly Farmer, Daniel Squire, Julie Cunningham—have left. Some fired in a flurry of press shortly before Merce died, some leaving due to injury during the tour. I miss their distinctiveness, I find. These dancers seem to blur together—I can’t tell if that’s Krista or Melissa, Dylan or Brandon, down on the stage. Or maybe I’m just giving in to my nostalgia. Or maybe it’s just how far away I’m sitting.

Rashaun returns, triplet-ing on stage to join Andrea, interrupting what was once Sandra’s solo to grab her hands and promenade her back and forth in picture-perfect tilted, Cunningham attitudes. He picks her up like a baby, but rather than gently carrying her, tosses her body up and down so that she curls up and then extends with every other drop. Placing her back on her feet, he leads her off-stage at a quick trot. Moving at light-speed now, arms twisting and circling, shoulders bouncing in every direction, he circles the stage, skimming the floor with his steps, turning and hopping on one leg. He runs off-stage.

 The curtain comes down and there’s a momentary silence before the audience explodes into applause. Everyone stands in a rush. It’s the end. A few more stops around the world, a final NYC performance, and MCDC will come to a close. I’ll never see them again and neither will most people in the theater. We applaud to hang on to the instant—and a few illicit cameras flash around the audience.

Electronic music replaced by deafening applause. The dancers walk forwards and back, joining hands, Silas in the middle, surrounded by the others. They gesture to the musicians. The curtain lowers and rises again. They walk forward again; they bow. Over and over they traverse the stage. Over and over the curtain falls to rise again. And still the stage seems empty.

 The applause verges on frantic, as if everyone is waiting for something, believing that something will happen if they just keep clapping long and loud enough. My own clapping feels to me suddenly desperate, like I’m trying to hold on to something through my own bodily movement. And I realize why: for the first time, I watch a curtain call, and no one leaves to fetch Merce. No one steps aside from the line of dancers, walks to the wing, and pushes him out in his wheelchair. I keep clapping and feel, for the first time, a real sense of his death. Of death as absence. As a space on stage that cannot be filled, no matter how long the applause continues.

I wonder how many other audience members are thinking something similar: about seeing him bow in the 70s and 80s with the company, about watching him walk out to wave and bow in the 90s and early 2000s, about memories similar to my own, of his dancing body twisted from arthritis and confined to a chair (a chair so different from the iconic Antic Meet photograph) but always coming out to greet the crowd. And also, I wonder about those Cornish students filling the seats behind me, who have performed his work, who have watched his last dancers, but who have seen the man himself only in photographs. Does it matter? Does the photographic memory of the individual make a difference? I don’t know.

But Merce was here tonight, that I know. He lives in Rainforest, in Rashaun’s body as he twists around Marcie/Barbara, as he suddenly, before you’re ready for him to go, stalks off the stage, in the tilted positions that are almost classical and yet carefully not. The dance exists in a constant present and a constant history—as live performance and as film, in 2011 and in 1968, in the bodies of the dancers and in the memories of the audience. When the lights go dark on the company on December 31, the two-year long memorial service ends. From then on, the work will live in the repertories of ballet companies and colleges, in the bodies of students and of dancers trained in other ways, in muscle memories not crafted by Merce’s teaching. Will his ghost still come to watch?


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