From the archives: Merce Cunningham—an interview and review | Arts

From the archives: Merce Cunningham—an interview and review



Two stories from the archives, before this weekend's performances by the MERCE CUNNINGHAM DANCE COMPANY on its farewell "Legacy Tour," for those seeking further background on his work: a revealing interview from last summer with Cunningham dancer and dance reconstructor JEAN FREEBURY, followed by an earlier critical review from his company's last appearance at the American Dance Festival.

Cunningham dancer and reconstructor Jean Freebury
  • Cunningham dancer and reconstructor Jean Freebury
Last summer, ADF belatedly asked Freebury to place his ISLETS 2 on students over six weeks. After dancing with Merce’s company from 1992 to 2003, she has taught his work now for 15 years. In our July 2010 interview, she gave a revealing look into what his work looks and feels like from the inside; one woman’s personal, guided tour through his art.

Nine years before that, the ADF presented Cunningham’s company, for the last time, in 2001. I was there. My critical response to WAY STATION was published in the local press, on the international dance website, DANCEINSIDER.COM—and, ultimately, in the book Who’s Not Afraid of Martha Graham?, the final work of dance history by ADF’s beloved, long-time philosopher-in-residence, Dr. Gerald Myers.

Here's what I saw on the night of July 12, 2001, in Page Auditorium:

from Cunninghams Way Station
  • from Cunningham's "Way Station"
The Many Stations of Merce
Byron Woods

DURHAM, North Carolina — You can't miss her: in the middle of "Way Station," Merce Cunningham's latest creation, seen Thursday at the American Dance Festival, a woman enters slowly from off-stage left; walking, not quite tip-toe, on the balls of her feet. Less than a fourth of the way across stage, she stops. Still extended, she proceeds to take in the world around her with no small degree of fascination; head erect, slowly turning.

The inventory doesn't stop when she gets to her own form. As she looks at her arms, legs and torso the same rare air of discovery intensifies. At points she seems to be measuring gravity itself, and its effects on the body she is in. She deliberately articulates and extends each extremity individually, observing its responses, with what appears to be predominantly an intellectual interest — but one mixed with more than a glimmer of deep delight.

It's an unalloyed sense of wonder, at both the possibilities of physical form and the world it inhabits. In these insufficiently post-postmodern days, it's as rare as it is refreshing within the realm of modern dance. Cunningham had it when he started choreographing a little over fifty years ago. Obviously, miraculously, he still has it. We saw it clearly fund three separate — and quite rigorous — explorations over the space of thirty-three years in Thursday's concert.

from Cunninghams RainForest
  • from Cunningham's "Rain Forest"
The evening proceeded in reverse chronological order: "Way Station," which premiered this spring in New York, was followed by "Native Green" from 1985. After an intermission, the company performed "RainForest," the 1968 work placed on a set of floating silver pillows designed by Andy Warhol: interesting choices, all told, for something as impossible as a one-night retrospective.

As Cunningham progresses, his focus and influences seem to move from human to organic to the cybernetic. The infectious sense of play in "RainForest" gives way to the nature-based bird-like imagery of "Native Green."

By comparison, Cunningham sings the body electric in "Way Station," as his company moves with incredible precision around and through sculptor Charles Long's fantastic three-legged multi-story structures in pink, green and aqua. From individual investigations of space, gravity, self and others at the outset, dancers develop and explore duets and trios that assess the possibilities of contact at the body's articulation points. The slowest of these axial sequences suggest living Calderesque mobiles.

Cunningham's latest choreography is overtly balletic, obsessed with extension of arms and legs, keeping the dancers on the balls of their feet during much of the work. It's as easy to detect the influences of computer-assisted sequences here as it is to be impressed with the dancers' ability to execute them in human bodies. Fifty years out, Cunningham's technique is astringent and astounding; his dancers, breathtaking.

As ever, the attractions of his work remain predominantly, unapologetically intellectual and aesthetic. Takehisa Kosugi's loud live electronic modifications of human voice, breath and a series of instruments (including an improbable harmonica) carried on John Cage's challenge of any conventional definition of music.

But the keen sense of exploration and sharp intellectual rigor fueled by simple wonder remains undimmed in this new work. The body remains a source of revelation for Cunningham. Even at this late date, one senses clearly that the discoveries are still unfolding.

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