What gives the work of Merce Cunningham its thrill? Why does watching it feel, at times, as if you’re standing at the edge of a precipice?
There was space to ponder these questions on Friday at the 92nd Street Y, at the opening of the 25th Harkness Dance Festival, one of many events this year honoring the 100th anniversary of Cunningham’s birth. While the rest of the monthlong festival highlights his descendants — artists who danced for him and went on to make their own work — Friday’s “Feast of Cunningham” sampled his vast repertory, bringing together seasoned Cunningham dancers with newcomers to his oeuvre.
The thrill factor, of course, has to do with who’s dancing. And on this program, it spiked when Melissa Toogood — a member of the Cunningham company’s final generation — shared the stage with the American Ballet Theater soloist Calvin Royal III. There were also valiant performances from New York Theater Ballet, in “Septet” (1953) and “Cross Currents” (1964), as well as students from the New World School of the Arts in Miami, who danced a MinEvent (or collage of Cunningham excerpts) staged by Ms. Toogood. But it was Ms. Toogood and Mr. Royal, in a couple of too-fleeting duets, who most embodied a sense of transcending the impossible.
Ms. Toogood has had a prolific freelance dance career since the disbanding of Cunningham’s troupe in 2012. Her clarity, equanimity and technical facility translate into all kinds of work. But in its relaxed, even blissful tone, her performance on Friday felt like a homecoming. In an opening set of solos, from “Doubles” (1984) and “Loose Time” (2002), she cut through space like a fish through water, in her native habitat.
Her partnership with Mr. Royal — first in an excerpt from “Scenario” (1997), then in selections from “Landrover” (1972) and “Trails” (1982) — felt just as natural. At times a smile crept over her face, as if solving the puzzle of rapid directional shifts and perilous balances was pure fun. Then again, who wouldn’t be delighted to dance with Mr. Royal? A sensitive partner, he ignited the theater with his strikingly springy jump, recalling one of Cunningham’s own most celebrated skills as a dancer.
While not quite as star-powered, “Septet” (for six dancers) and “Cross Currents” (for three) were, in their nonexcerpted nature, the night’s most fully realized pieces. Created a decade apart, they point to an evolution in Cunningham’s work, from dancing to music (Satie’s soothing “Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear,” played live by Adam Marks and Michael Scales at the piano) to dancing with music (Conlon Nancarrow’s choppy “Rhythm Studies for Player Piano”). And while “Septet” invokes distinct themes — its seven sections include “In the Garden” and “In the Morgue” — “Cross Currents” is more stridently pared down, well served by the effervescent attack that Alexis Branagan, Amanda Treiber and Joshua Andino-Nieto delivered.
Ending with a MinEvent for 12 students, the program looked to the future: Who are the Cunningham dancers of the next generation? Not all the young performers had settled into the rigors of the Cunningham technique, but curiosity and commitment were in the air.