When Helen Keller lifted Merce, & more danced stories from Martha at Mother

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the DI on March 2, 2000. Today’s republication sponsored by Slippery Rock University Dance. To read more about the late Pilobolus dancer Rebecca Jung, click here.

NEW YORK — The first time I saw Merce Cunningham perform his “Chair Dance” a couple of years ago, I cried. (I know, some of you probably think I cry all the time, but really, it’s only death, Merce, Pina, New York City Ballet, and loves that might have been that drive me to tears, and not all for the same reason. Drop me a line at artsvoyager@gmail.com and I’ll shoot you the appropriate Flash Reviews and love letters.) It was partly Merce’s powerful presence, partly that he shook when he walked. I imagine I would also cry in the presence of G-d, and Merce is the dance equivalent. The dance was entirely tasteful; Merce at 78 didn’t choreograph for himself as if he were 38. It was made for a 78-year-old, and one who shakes when he walks at that. It was an act of generosity more than one of vainglory by an aging trooper who refuses to leave the stage. When I saw Alicia Alonso, the great Cuban ballerina, dance a “chair dance” at 74 or so – here, in Fokine’s “Spectre de la Rose” — I regretted it immediately. Not having seen Alonso in her prime, this enfeebled, blind ghost was how I would remember her. Last night, Merce reprised his chair dance for Martha at Mother, the occasional dance revue at a tiny Meatpacking district bar (Mother), hosted by faux Martha Graham Richard Move. (Though officially, she leaves the “Graham” off for legal reasons.) Standing at the rear of the tiny space, I cried again, tears that linger still.

Merce, however, was not crying. He showed more bonhomie than I would have, being interviewed by a drag queen channeling the woman for whom Merce was the second male dancer. “You look like someone I know,” he told Move before recalling various experiences with the real Martha. Most memorable: A visit to the studio by Helen Keller, who asked Martha if she could touch a dancer. Martha asked Merce to stand at the barre. When Keller held him around the waist and lifted him, Merce recalled, she said he felt “as light as the mind.”

As for Merce’s dancing Wednesday night, well. His “Chair Dance” at 78 entailed some movements around the chair and some in it, and a lot of hand stuff and some footwork. The shaking became part of the choreography. Last night, it was as if Merce’s landscape continues to shrink. (That’s a compliment.) We saw a face ballet at times; the eyes seemed almost to shut at points, and the face opened into a warm, cherubic grin.

The one sour point for me was Move’s presuming to perform with Merce at the end of the dance. I thank him and Janet Stapleton for bringing Merce to their event, but I thought it over-moxie for Move to dance with him; it presents them as equals, and they’re not.

A more successful collaboration was the premiere of a video created by Charles Atlas and Cunningham, which gave us a Merce’s-eye view of Paris, during a recent Cunningham tour. The camera appeared mounted on Merce, who also narrated, bemusedly.

Isaac Mizrahi MC’d the performance by Move’s company that opened the evening. Particularly sharp in this ersatz Graham troupe was a dancer who reminded me of a young Rebecca Jung, the former Pilobolus stalwart. Looking at my program now….Oh, it was Rebecca Jung. (Funny how time blurs the memory.) The ersatz bothers me–my concern is that people who don’t know the real McCoy will think that Graham was just about melodrama, when her psychodrama rings very true. But judging from the number of Graham insiders on stage–Donlin Foreman also performed last night–as well as other dance insiders in the audience (Baryshnikov among them), I’m probably in the minority on this.

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