For the past year, the world has taken part in the Merce Cunningham Centennial Celebration, and for Los Angeles the year came to a brilliant conclusion on April 16th, Cunningham’s birthday, with the Night of 100 Solos at CAP UCLA’s Royce Hall. The Event was performed simultaneously in New York and London, featuring over 75 dancers from around the world, and live-streamed on Vimeo and Facebook. The Los Angeles performance included dancers, five composers, lighting and costume designers and a visual artist; all of whom came together within the past three days. In short, it was a true Cunningham legacy driven Event, artists working separately to combine their art forms on the eve of the performance.

Co-produced by UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance, Barbican London, Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the Merce Cunningham Trust, the Night of 100 Solos was an amazing experience, and as an alumnus of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, it brought back memories and renewed gratitude for the man who launched my professional career back in 1967.

There were 26 dancers of varying ages who performed 100 solos choreographed by Cunningham. The solos were selected from his 180 works that spanned 7 decades. Cunningham created his first work in 1938 and ventured out on his own after leaving the Martha Graham Dance Company. He and his life partner, musician and composer John Cage, founded the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1952. After his death in 2009, the remainder of that year was used to organize the company’s “legacy tour” which began in January 2010. The final performance of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company was on December 31, 2011. Cunningham’s legacy continues with selected works re-staged for professional and non-professional companies, classes taught by former company members, and his technique living within the muscles of those who worked and/or studied with him over the years.

The 90-minute performance of Night of 100 Solos was comprised of extraordinary dancing, music and visual art. Composer Stephan Moore, who worked with the Cunningham company as Sound Engineer and Music Supervisor from 2004 to 2010, selected four women musicians/composers from the Los Angeles area, and together they produced an incredible musical experience that took the audience through a range of terrains, emotions and mental visions.  During one section where all 26 dancers were standing still onstage, the music crescendoed into what sounded and felt like a volcanic eruption. Those extremely talented composers and musicians were Madison Greenstone, Bethan Kellough, Stephanie Richards, Suzanne Thorpe and Stephan Moore.

The computer generated set by Los Angeles based media and installation artist Jennifer Steinkamp, provided an ever-moving backdrop of trees, spring flowers and fruits quivering, shaking, falling, sailing or evolving through the four seasons. Animated butterflies, a tree that rotated back and forth as spring produced foliage and fruit, only for autumn to cause them to be discarded.  Striped and dotted swaths of silky cloth flowed down from above in slow motion waves, and pastel colors blurred together to create an abstract painting. Steinkamp caused us to feel like we were being rained upon by flowers, soothed with gentle breezes, and bombarded by bits and pieces of broken branches.

Moving elegantly, majestically and sometimes statically through all of this were the amazingly talented dance artists, none of whom had performed with the Cunningham Company. It was the Cunningham Trust’s way of helping to insure that Cunningham’s movement legacy was carried into the next generation. Those of us who did dance with the company, spent the evening trying to guess which solo came from what dance. Primarily, however, we sat in awe of what we were witnessing. After learning the solos and being videotaped, the dancers rehearsed themselves with the aid of those videos, coming together in Los Angeles for three days prior to the performance. Somehow, they managed to arrive with the Cunningham technique alive in their bodies.

Night of 100 Solos_03 Photo Reed Hutchinson Night of 100 Solos_40 Photo Reed Hutchinson Merce Cunningham Centennial - Night of 100 Solos - CAP UCLA Royce Hall Night of 100 Solos_24 Photo Reed Hutchinson Night of 100 Solos_46 Photo Reed Hutchinson Night of 100 Solos_29 Photo Reed Hutchinson Night of 100 Solos_67 Photo Reed Hutchinson Night of 100 Solos_70 Photo Reed Hutchinson Night of 100 Solos_62 Photo Reed Hutchinson Night of 100 Solos2 Photo Reed Hutchinson Night of 100 Solos_39 Photo Reed Hutchinson Merce Cunningham Centinnel - Night of 100 Solos - Photo by Reed Hutchinson - CAP UCLA
Merce Cunningham Centennial Celebration - Night of 100 Solos at CAP UCLA's Royce Hall - Photo Reed Hutchinson

Remaining true to Cunningham, former company members Andrea Weber and Dylan Crossman used chance procedures to assemble the solos, allowing for a few personal tweaks where the results of those procedures were impossible to fulfill. Solos, duets, trios, quartets, quintets were awash with beautiful colors of spring and autumn hued costumes designed and built by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung. Most of the costumes were unitards a la Cunningham, but a few resembled jumpsuits worn by him over the years.

The lighting by Royce Hall’s Jessica Wodinsky let us see the full sculpture of the dancers’ bodies while she created her own passage through subtle shifting environments. The lights were once used as cues for the dancers to change positions in the section where all 26 dancers were on stage at once. Poses and shapes altered as the lights gently blinked.

Pauline Motley moved across the stage with a chair, shifting between sitting and standing to perform simple leg movements. I remember seeing Cunningham perform such a solo while his amazing dancers dashed about around him. All eyes were, of course, zeroed in on him. Motley later rode a bicycle around the stage recreating yet another one of Cunningham’s personal moments within his work.

Daniel McCucker performed a humorous solo from Cunningham’s 1958 Antic Meet, wearing a multi-armed sweater that had no opening for his head. We later saw Jessica Liu perform a solo first performed by Viola Farber from that same work. Liu crossed the stage executing intricate footwork while holding an internally lit umbrella over her head. A cardboard box walked across the stage, reminiscent of what, during my time with the company, was fondly called “The Monster” in Cunningham’s Winterbranch (1964).

The solos ranged from ones that quietly incorporated subtle moves of a shoulder, a ribcage or a hip, to others with large leaps, turns and high leg extensions. The performers’ colors would almost melt into the background only to pop back into full view as a stunning dancer like Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson, Paige Amicon, Lorrin Brubaker, Rena Butler, Barry Brannum, Burr Johnson, or seasoned performers Tamsin Carlson, Laurel Jenkins, Pam Tamowitz or Ros Warby drew one’s eye back to the dancing. It was Butler who, for me, came the closest to having Cunningham’s creature-like energy combined with his masterful control.

The performance was 90 minutes long without intermission, but it flew by like a notable dream, flashing memories across the minds of those of us who worked with, studied with, or simply sat in the audience and enjoyed the genius of Merce Cunningham.

The full list of performers included: Paige Amicon, Barry Brannum, Lorrin Brubaker, Rena Butler, Tamsin Carlson, Erin Dowd, Katherine Helen Fisher, Joshua Gillemot-Rodgerson, Casey Hess, Thomas House, Laurel Jenkins, Burr Johnson, Vanessa Knouse, Brian Lawson, Jessica Liu, Victor Lozano, Una Ludviksen, Daniel McCusker, Polly Motley, Jermain Maurice Spivey, Savanna Spratt, pam Tanowitz, Ros Warby, Riley Watts, and Sam Wentz.

The Executive Producer for Night of 100 Solos was Ken Tabachnick, and Trevor Carlson was Creative Producer.  Cunningham company alumni who provided additional staging and coaching: Kimberly Bartosik, Lisa Boudreau, Michael Cole, Brandon Cowlles, Paige Cunningham, Holley Farmer, Maydelle Fason, Victoria Finlayson, Jean Freebury, Jennifer Goggans, Alan Good, Susana Hayman-Chaffey, Patricia Lent, Marcie Munnerlyn, Banu Ogan, Jared Phillips, albert Reid, Silas Reiner, Kristy Santimyer-Melita, Jamie Scott, Derry Swan, Carol Teitelbaum, and Megan Walker-Straight.

The Videographer and Livestream of Night of 100 Solos was produced by Nel Shelby Productions and will be available online for a limited time. To watch the Los Angeles performance, click here. For the New York performance, click here. For London, click here.

To view the Merce Cunningham Trust website, click here.

To find out more about the UCLA Center for the Art of Performance, click here.

Featured image: Burr Johnson in Merce Cunningham Centennial –Night of 100 Solos – CAP UCLA’s Royce Hall – Photo by Reed Hutchinson