To mark what would have been Merce Cunningham’s 100th birthday, on the 16 April 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust in partnership with the Barbican celebrates the world-renowned choreographer and his ground-breaking approach to dance. Performed by a talented ensemble of 25 dancers, Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event seeks to revitalise his legacy through an innovative reworking of “Events” (as Cunningham would have called them) curated by the artist throughout his lifetime, in 90 continuous minutes of performance.
It is no understatement to say that Night of 100 Solos is a love letter to Cunningham and his influence on the dance world. The performance is every bit the choreographer and his simple yet impactful mode of dance, with many of the solos being taken from many of Cunningham’s previous Events (a total of 74 works are listed as having their choreography incorporated into the evening). For avid fans of the choreographer, some of Cunningham’s distinctive moves or pieces will be easily identifiable. These nods to the past are fast and fleeting, as the solos come in quick succession – with, one some occasions, multiple dancers being on stage at once. Only distinguishable by the brightly coloured leotards they adorn, the dancers come and go effortlessly; some make frequent appearance, while others are on stage one minute and don’t return until the very end. There are some natural attention-stealers among the ensemble – Nathan Gracia, Francesca Hayward and Daphne Fernberger are particularly engrossing to watch – yet they all make the most of their time paying homage to Cunningham.
Reading the programme before the performance, it highlights the artist’s belief that dance and music can be performed at the same time yet remain independent of one another. The idea that dance does not have to be limited to or orchestrated by the accompanying music was radical when Cunningham first introduced it; to have gone against this approach would have been a betrayal. Honouring the choreographer’s belief was undoubtedly beneficial to the company, for it meant that the century of solos could easily follow one another or be performed in unison, without feeling out of touch with the pace of tone of the predecessor’s movements. Convenient as this may have been for the performers, the repetitive nature of the music puts a strain on the audience’s attention span. What is more, the lack of melody within the piece – instead opting for a more experimental feel, as if the musicians were discovering the sounds for the first time – prevents any sense of structure or trajectory to the performance. This, combined with the unusual film Shadows Cast By Readymades – a projection of images and diagrams on the stage backdrop (the reason for their presence never being explained) – unfortunately makes time pass at a painstakingly slow pace.
There will be those who will argue that each of these elements in Night of 100 Solos embodies the choreographer and his ethos, and that the night was an experiment that Cunningham would have been proud to witness. This may very well be true. However, only long-time admirers of Merce Cunningham would be able to appreciate this (and given the rapturous applause at the end, they certainly did). While the night caters to those who have followed his work, it is not for those who are new to Cunningham’s style. It is odd that those behind Night of 100 Solos chose not to use the night to invite dance aficionados to discover Cunningham for the first time and become enchanted as they are. Had the screen been used to display previous performances of Cunningham’s work to help identify where inspiration had been drawn from, then the magnitude of what was happening onstage – and how ambitious the project was – may have been better understood.
It is here that Night of 100 Solos misses a trick. It has been 10 years since Cunningham passed away, and for his legacy to live on people need to continue discovering his work and appreciating the impact he had on modern dance. Rather than encourage new admirers, however, this Event indulges those who already know him.