The Performance Club

Time Marches On

Silas Riener and Rashaun Mitchell, performing “NOX,” a collaboration with Anne Carson, at the historic Moore Building as part of O Miami Poetry Festival in April 2011. The piece will be performed at Danspace Project, May 10 to 12.

Earlier this month, I trucked up to Wellesley College to see the premiere (and perhaps only iteration) of Weathervane, a work by the choreographer-dancers Silas Riener and Rashaun Mitchell, created in collaboration with the musicians Eyvind Kang and Jessika Kenney.

Weathervane is site-specific, and was whipped up in large part over a 24-hour period, working from a set of structured improvisations; the four artists had only about six hours together, in the space, an architecturally idiosyncratic hall comprised of numerous angled walls and window banks.

For those who know Riener and Mitchell from their time as Merce Cunningham dancers (they were among the company’s final members), this perhaps sounds something like the Events Cunningham created throughout his career. And, to a certain extent, it was.

But Cunningham’s choreography was scrupulously set and typically created independent from the other elements. Here, everything was in flux, all mashed up, tenuous (these four had never collaborated together before). As Carol Dougherty, a professor of the classics at Wellesley who invited Mitchell and Riener to make Weathervane, said in introducing the performance, “I’m very grateful and slightly in awe that they were willing to take such risks.”

Riener preparing the space, just before the show

I felt this gratitude while watching the work, especially knowing it might never again be performed, and certainly never as it was on this afternoon. I adore both of these dancers. They’re so smart, so mercurial. It’s hard, sitting down, to keep up.

Because I was there observing things behind the scenes, I hadn’t planned to write anything. I didn’t take many notes—anyway, notes are funny things. The act of taking them focuses my mind in a particular way (some variation on muscle memory, maybe?) but the gulf  between experiencing and accounting is immediate, and ever-widening. So, well, here are a few things written by the person I was at that moment in time:

RM is coiled like a bow. The green bamboo outside, now missing its dusting of snow… Spines of paper like dinosaur bridal trains. The viola marks time, pensive. RM’s big, sovereign leap. One big, final effort to hold balance and then he’s off, so delicately. SR in a lunge … he has a more severe geometry. Articulation of his feet, explosiveness of movement, acceleration from the starting blocks. … the pure, sweet tones of her voice—almost words .. his limbs you think will split apart; it will be a clean rupture…SR hunches down tight. RM floats. They keep tipping over. How to get balance?

The tracing paper being crumpled, curling under the musicians’ fingers, sound like rain beating down on tin roofs. The rain that was predicted but never came. And now they’re down to shorts and sweat-dark shirts. Vellum airplanes. They sit like little boys, the way children play in the corners during funerals. The way RM’s head falls away as his shoulder rises. The way SR’s toes curl as though they were fingers—how these little things become so impossibly dear to us. We fall in love with people, artists and we can’t do without them. And then we have to & we think we won’t be able to go on. But we do. This is the way it lives. This is the realest way. Merce Cunningham now a museum; this is alive. Tracing paper; one idea grafted onto the other….

The feeling in those last 10 or so sentences is what has resonated most strongly with me in the two weeks since Weathervane. I felt them again when I read the Merce Cunningham Trust announcement of a Cage/Cunningham program, with a new staging, by Robert Swinston, of Cunningham’s Doubletoss (1993), featuring “former Merce Cunningham dancers.”

Reading this, I felt deeply ambivalent and sad. Something about that word “former,” I think. We are all always something former, never exactly what we were; this is a narrative of progress, but it is also one of loss. And in dance, as in no other art form, we confront this loss. The response,often, is a predictable emphasis on preservation, on insisting that the ephemeral will keep (repertory companies, museums collecting performance, NEA reconstruction grants….). Beyond whether this is possible, I’m increasingly convinced that it misses the entire point of what live art in its finest moments can give to us, and wrongly encourages our deep yearning to deny impermanence. Mightn’t we be better served by the idea of transmuting, as a way to live? Isn’t this how we work things out biologically, as a species?

Besides the archives that consolidate in the architectonics of the House or Law as a sedentary depository, one could think of performers as mobile body-archives. They are not merely domiciled containers, but metabolic ecologies that
compose the living traces of experience.Such mobile architectures of sedimentation would not align with the fetishising culture of dead bones but keep a sympathetic link with the processes of gasses, fermentations, as they are aggregated in the body. -Myriam Van Imschoot, Rests in Pieces: On Scores, Notation and the Trace in Dance

Riener and Mitchell’s bodies thrum with Cunningham. But to see them now as “former” Cunningham dancers, to see them only as that or even primarily, is to not really see them at all. Not to see, for example, that Riener has just spent a month with the Forsythe Company, and that slippery language is already producing a strange alchemy within him.

Jodi Melnick, “One of Sixty Five Thousand Gestures,” created in collaboration with Trisha Brown. Photo: Ian Douglas.

I thought of Weathervane while watching Jodi Melnick’s sublime performance at New York Live Arts, especially during One of Sixty Five Thousand Gestures, which she created with Trisha Brown. Brown’s company is even now toiling to catalog her astounding repertory, with no announcements yet, as far as I am aware, of how the organization plans to preserve or not preserve it for future generations.

In a very different way, one that we should not be so quick to discount, Melnick and other choreographers who have been deeply influenced by Brown are working along these lines. Sarah Michelson is doing this same thing with Cunningham. And on and on. Not all archives require acid-free paper. I haven’t yet decided whether I will attend the Cunningham/Cage show this week. But I will be at Danspace Project, in May, for Nox. 


  1. M Metcalf
    March 23, 2012

    This is important. Thank you!

  2. claudia
    March 24, 2012

    Thanks, M! Would love to hear your perspective on this ….

  3. David Vaughan
    April 5, 2012

    I hope you didn’t miss the Cage/Cunningham show. Robert and the dancers and the great pianist made something new out of old material.

  4. claudia
    April 9, 2012

    Hello, David – I’m afraid that I did. It was too soon for me, somehow, after saying goodbye at New Year’s. I’m not ready. I was afraid that, as Aaron Mattocks wrote in his beautiful essay, I would feel this way:

    “But by about twenty minutes in, I was scolding myself for not having let the awe of the last Armory show on New Year’s Eve be the way I would remember this company, this work, these people.”

Leave a Reply

7 − = four