Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - October 28, 2011

A final bow

Merce Cunningham Dance Company bids farewell at Stanford with its last Bay Area performance

by Rebecca Wallace

The farewell tour of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, coming to Stanford University two years after the death of the troupe's innovative founder, is fitting as both a tribute and a statement.

On Nov. 1, the company will perform a restaged version of Cunningham's work "Nearly 90," which he premiered in 2009 for his 90th birthday. His intense, non-narrative choreography will be paired with a score by Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones and mixed-media sound composer Takehisa Kosugi.

In addition, Stanford dancers will present their versions of Cunningham choreography in a free Oct. 31 event. New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay is scheduled to speak.

Cunningham's inventive spirit will no doubt live on in many of these young dancers. But his company's story will soon come to a close, just as he planned it. "Nearly 90" was his final work, and the troupe will disband at the end of the year.

These are the steps of a man who lived in the moment.

"He was interested in what was in front of him. This continued exploration, rather than repetition or referencing the past, was really at the heart of what Merce was doing," Trevor Carlson, executive director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, told the Weekly.

The New York artist, whose career extended nearly seven decades, was widely revered as a choreographer. When Cunningham died in July 2009, Macaulay wrote in a New York Times obituary that the artist "ranks among the foremost figures of artistic modernism and among the few who have transformed the nature and status of dance theater."

For Cunningham, that modernism also involved modern technology. In his later years, he delved into motion-capture technology and appeared in a web series. When age and arthritis limited his motion, he choreographed with the help of a computer program, DanceForms.

Cunningham's technological bent may have struck a chord with many at Stanford, where his company has appeared a number of times. In 2005, the school hosted a rare interdisciplinary project dedicated to his career, called "Encounter: Merce." The campuswide endeavor included films, panel discussions, workshops and collaborations with departments as diverse as the music department and the School of Medicine.

"The Stanford student body and faculty, the connection and interest in technology: All of those things make for a good partnership," Carlson said. "When all parties are interested in pushing beyond what exists."

Born in 1919, Cunningham was a soloist in the Martha Graham Dance Company before founding his own company in 1953, according to his troupe's website. A major force in the American avant-garde, he took dance in new, surprising directions, sometimes even using tools of chance such as the I Ching to guide his next path.

His choreography, which was purposely non-narrative, can be difficult to describe. In the dancer's obituary, Macaulay wrote: "His movement — startling in its mixture of staccato and legato elements, and unusually intense in its use of torso, legs and feet — abounded in non sequiturs."

Stanford dance lecturer Diane Frank, who was on the teaching staff of the Cunningham studio in New York from 1979 to 1988, said his choreography always had "a tremendous clarity."

"His inquiry has to do with space and time and movement," she said. "It doesn't stand for anything. It is what it is, and that's why I like it."

Frank added with a smile: "The technique is so hard. You have to have built it up not to injure yourself doing it."

Over the years, Cunningham collaborated with a wealth of visual artists and musicians, in particular his life partner, the composer John Cage. The two worked together from the 1940s until Cage's 1992 death. They agreed that music and dance should be crafted separately and then brought together on the stage, a notion that was controversial.

Other Cunningham collaborators included the artists Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns; and the musicians Brian Eno, Sonic Youth and Stanford composer Mark Applebaum.

Of course, Cunningham's career was also notable in its length. Until age 70, he appeared in every performance of his company, and performed from time to time after that, Macaulay wrote. He taught dance almost up until his death.

Frank recalls visiting the New York studio a few years ago and remarking upon how tired Cunningham looked. Then he led a dance class.

"The vitality of his teaching!" she exclaimed with a laugh. "It was awe-inspiring to see what his intent could generate in that room."

Frank is scheduled to attend the Nov. 1 company performance at Stanford, moderating a free post-performance discussion with Robert Swinston, director of choreography for the company.

When asked whether she found it poignant to watch the last local performance, Frank shook her head. She reflected aloud on the fleeting nature of dance and how exciting that can be. The dance has to end, but in the moment, it lives. "What it does give you is a sense of being very much alive," she said.

To be in Cunningham's circle was "an extraordinary gift," she added. "What I got was a way of looking at the world, not just steps. It's never just steps."

What: The Merce Cunningham Dance Company performs "Nearly 90" in its farewell tour, presented by Stanford Lively Arts.

Where: Memorial Auditorium, Stanford University

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 1

Cost: Tickets are $30-$80 general, $15.50-$42.50 for youths under 18, and $10 for Stanford students.

Info: Go to http://livelyarts.stanford.edu or call 650-725-ARTS. A free, informal event is also planned at 7 p.m. Oct. 31 in Studio 38 at Stanford's Roble Gym (no reserved seating), with Stanford dancers in open rehearsal of some of Merce Cunningham's works. New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay and former dance-company member Carol Teitelbaum will speak.

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