Doing, not being
by Stephanie Rieke
On one trip we had stopped at a gas station, and all of us scrambled out, to run, dance, sing, jump around the pumps. Two ladies in a car watched us with interest. One said to John Cage, "Are you comedians?" Cage replied, "No. We're from New York." Merce Cunningham
The Merce Cunningham Dance Company charts its official flowering back to the creative hothouse of North Carolina's Black Mountain College in the summer of 1953. The stories from those early days are as charming as they are indelible: six dancers, artist Robert Rauschenberg (the company's do-it-all technical director), and two musicians, all jammed in a VW bus crisscrossing the country.
For the last twenty months, Merce Cunningham has been everywhere in the media and on the road celebrating his company's phenomenal fifty years of performing, touring, and generally confounding dance audiences all over the world. Just as astounding, Cunningham has survived as an establishment outlaw. At eighty-five, he is as committed as ever to questioning convention and exploring new possibilities as an artist. Witness his recent project with Radiohead and Sigur Rs, which sold out the Brooklyn Academy of Music last fall and introduced his "appetite for motion" to a whole new generation of the avant-garde.
On the heels of its jubilant Balanchine celebration last fall, the University Musical Society presents this other titan of twentieth-century dance with two different programs of oldies and goodies on Friday and Saturday, March 12 and 13, at the Power Center.
Cunningham is often touted as the Balanchine of modern dance, and as facile as such a comparison is, it proves a useful shorthand for Cunningham's deconstructed classicism and wholesale reconsideration of how the body moves in time and space. The major difference is that Balanchine used music as his "ground," while Cunningham radically divorced music from movement altogether. For Cunningham and his lifelong collaborator, the late composer John Cage, there is no relation between sound (or,
for that matter, lighting, decor, or costume) and the steps. They unite only in performance, often with a roll of the dice.
How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run (1965), on the March 12 bill, is a signature ensemble piece syncopated with droll stories written by Cage and read on stage often by Cunningham himself in a delightfully deadpan manner. (In person, Cunningham remains a celestial force of articulated energy, generosity, and open-face intelligence.)
BIPED (1999, music by Gavin Bryars), to be performed March 13, takes its title from the simulated wire-frame figure created with LifeForms the motion-capture software Cunningham has used to choreograph for more than a decade. Perhaps because of such insider references, his reliance on chance operations, and his allegiance to such creative forces as iconoclast artist Marcel Duchamp and the I Ching, some unfortunately misperceive Cunningham's defined technique as too cerebral, solemnly abstract, or even chaotic. In fact, it's highly organic, structured, and often humorous. Cunningham's dancers fly, balance, point their toes, and change direction on a dime. As he puts it, instead of being something, they are doing something.
[Originally published in March, 2004.]