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A Look at Merce Cunningham’s Life and Work Through His Legacy Tour

Written by Kristen Legg.
Instead of reviewing the first evening of Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s Legacy Tour (How do you review Cunningham?), SeattleDances presents an essay on his history, his brilliance, and his greatest bequest to the future of dance. First, some background information:

Merce Cunningham was born in Centralia, Washington where he first studied dance with Maude Barrett, a former vaudeville performer. He attended George Washington University for a year before transferring to Seattle’s own Cornish College. While there, Cunningham was seen by Martha Graham who asked him to join her company. From 1939 to 1945, Cunningham was a soloist in the Martha Graham Dance Company and worked with her to create many roles for himself, including the Revivalist in Appalachian Spring. In 1944, he began his own work with his partner, musician, John Cage. Cunningham was able to get his work seen and was asked to attend the summer program at Black Mountain College in 1952. It was here that Cunningham met dancers who would become the founding members of his company. Until his death on July 26, 2009, he choreographed over 200 works for his company and other professional companies.
Chance Dance:
Cunningham used chaos as the basis for many of his choreographic works. Using this form of organization, Cunningham built dances with strong movement and unique surprises. For instance, for his 1969 piece, Canfield, he used the card game solitaire, giving each playing card a designated step; red and black were designated speeds of fast or slow. By playing the game, Cunningham was able to find an order to the movements and created a whole dance with only fourteen steps. Cunningham’s brilliance lies not in what he did, but what he did not do. By using chance sequencing, often times phrases just worked out, and though he didn’t plan it, connections were made between the dancers and the audience.
Music and Art:
Almost all Cunningham’s choreography was done in silence with music added later. He believed dance, music, and art should all be separate on stage, yet somehow his collaborations became cohesive units of expression. He would often work to choreograph a piece and had someone create the music separately, only giving a theme or idea to the musician as to how to structure the piece. Cunningham’s set designs came from artists such as Jasper Johns, Charles Atlas, and Andy Warhol. In the case of Andy Warhol, Cunningham saw a piece of his in a gallery and thought it would add to the performance quality of his newest work, RainForest(which can be seen this Saturday night at the Paramount Theatre).
But what is it that makes Cunningham’s work, which was so unusual and experimental when created, still seem so new, fresh, and unique? Simple, Cunningham realized that everyone draws from their own experiences when viewing a certain work. In a piece called Winterbranch, Cunningham explored the idea of falling. When viewed in Sweden, people believed it had to do with race riots; in Germany, concentration camps; in Tokyo, the atom bomb. Everyone who viewed the piece brought something different from their lives into the theatre with them and connected it to the movement.
In Thursday evening’s performance of The Legacy Tour at the Paramount Theatre, the company presented three works. Quartet (1982) is the perfect example of a work that defies time; although the costumes are slightly dated, the piece seems as though it was choreographed yesterday. Five dancers on stage use stillness in quintessential Cunningham tilts, curves, and linear arabesques, one, Director of Choreography Robert Swinston, seemingly directing the quartet in front of him. In this work, you can derive how Cunningham was an inspiration to more recent choreographers: Paul Taylor, for example.
XOVER (2007), one of Cunningham’s last pieces (although not his last, he made two in the year of his death), seems to take Cunningham’s work back in time, with music by John Cage and décor by Robert Rauschenberg. While a bit bland at times, this work truly shows Cunningham’s intention to make choreography about bodies in space and movement, not about perfection and presentation. What’s amazing about XOVER is how each dancer’s body looks completely different doing the same movement.
A truly break-through work, BIPED (1999), was created using a computer program called “Life Form,” which allows users to enter data regarding choreography and then see it created on the screen. The perfect melding of live performance and video, this lengthy, yet never boring work highlights the strength of the company. Dancers fouette and land without hops, élevé in coupé and hold for seemingly endless periods of time, then leap across the stage like bounding stags (reminiscent of Graham’s springing leaps in Appalachian Spring).
Cunningham’s creative choreography is filled with surprises and beautiful moments that entice the viewer and add a whole new dimension to his work. His work can be seen again Saturday, October 29, 2011, at the Paramount Theatre. Next, The Legacy Tour continues to California, the Midwest, and Paris, and ends in New York on New Year’s Eve. This is the last time his work will be seen on dancers he personally trained; the company will disband after its final performance.

Cunningham once said, “You don’t stop living, so you don’t stop dancing.” Now, two  years after his death, his dance is coming to a glorious end.