Even Merce Cunningham loved a good internet cat video.
That revelation comes courtesy of Trevor Carlson, former executive director of Cunningham’s dance company. On Friday night, the Cowles Center in downtown Minneapolis hosted the U.S. premiere of “Not a Moment Too Soon,” Carlson’s bittersweetly nostalgic one-man show about his years with one of the world’s most renowned modern-dance troupes, which coincided with the last 11 years of the choreographer’s life.
In a sense, Carlson’s show picks up where “Common Time,” Walker Art Center’s expansive new Cunningham exhibit, leaves off. Carlson began working for the company in 1998, and eventually became not only its top businessman but a personal caretaker for the choreographer. On stage, he elucidates Cunningham’s final years through an intimate mix of live monologues, recorded journal readings by both Cunningham and Carlson, and video clips by Carlson, Cunningham and Carlson’s partner, Ferran Carvajal, who directed the show.
As appropriate for a piece about a choreographer who avoided telling stories through dance, Carlson uses a nonlinear narrative to explicate how an awkward gay kid from Florida with a homophobic father ended up as right-hand man to a modern master.
He confesses that Cunningham passed on at least one chance to fire him. After a hookup at a Miami club caused him to miss hotel checkout on his first tour, Carlson apologized profusely, but the choreographer wouldn’t speak to him until they were waiting for their plane and Carlson ran to get them drinks. “The tea is good,” Cunningham said. And Carlson was never late again.
Other anecdotes are far more serious. The Cunningham company has been praised for its deaccession plan. The goal was to avoid the fate of works by Martha Graham, which were tied up in a nasty court battle after her death. Carlson humbly implies he was the mastermind behind the company’s two-year legacy tour after Cunningham’s death, along with the establishment of a trust that would preserve and license the dances. He strategically presented this idea to Cunningham on a flight home to New York from Australia, when the choreographer was not only a captive audience, but would also have lots of time to think.
Their relationship was not all business. Early in the show, he hints at romance despite their nearly 50-year age gap, and he has guts to share that once, and only once, the two men disrobed and held each other, then never spoke of it again. More often, they danced to Billie Holiday, the only CD in Cunningham’s apartment.
The piece is full of little details that are too oddball to be saccharine. It’s nearly horrific, for example, to learn that the night before his death in 2009 at age 90, Cunningham drowsily watched Meryl Streep’s “Mamma Mia!” And then there are the cat videos. Cunningham began using a camcorder after seeing “American Beauty,” feeling a strange kinship with the voyeuristic characters. Instead of cheerleaders, though, he captured Manhattan cityscapes in a snowstorm, his own deeply creased face in a mirror and his black-and-white cat Blotch refusing to jump at his master’s urging. The choreographer’s feline, it seems, was much less cooperative than his dancers.
There is very little dancing in “Not a Moment Too Soon,” and that’s its biggest shortfall. Carlson begins by casually demonstrating the chance processes his boss used to develop many of his dances — for example, rolling dice to determine which limb would move in a sequence, and then again to determine whether the motion would be on the right or left side. Thus he invents a short variation and repeats it through the performance. But as Carlson admits, he was the worst dancer in his class at Juilliard. There’s only one glimpse of a Cunningham dancer, and that’s a blurry clip of an arabesque promenade beamed onto one of several onstage screens.
Perhaps this is conceding that “Not a Moment Too Soon” is only for die-hard Cunningham fans. But by not including more movement — live or projected — he makes the show more exclusive than it needs to be. Additional tour dates are already planned for Spain and London’s Barbican Theatre.
The story of how a legend died, and a failed dancer became the guardian of his legacy, is very much worth telling. And seeing. Even for those who walk in knowing no more than Cunningham’s name.