Choreographer Merce Cunningham turned 89 in April. When teaching or rehearsing, he mostly sits on a wheelchair or stool and leans on a ballet barre, occasionally standing to demonstrate a movement. Sixty years of dancing on hard floors without the body therapies available to dancers today, combined with his determination to not give up the thing he loves most in life have taken a physical toll on Cunningham. Despite his limitations, he continues to choreograph prolifically, assisted by 27-year company member Robert Swinton. It hasn’t stopped him from continuing to flourish as a choreographer, and this month, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company will be performing a site-specific work at Dia:Beacon on May 18.
Cunningham has always been considered cutting edge and his dancers considered elite—even Baryshnikov found his style challenging. When working with Cunningham, dancers have always had a particular look in their eyes and body, and to this day not one atom of his effect has diminished. Where other teachers give a 32-count phrase, Cunningham will give 64. Then a dancer must reverse it. Other choreographer’s will have a dancer on one leg for 16 counts, Cunningham will ask for 32, and that the dancer rise into relevé and tilt his or her torso simultaneously.
With partner John Cage, he was the first choreographer to use avant garde and electronic music. Cunningham invented “chance dance,” and has used the I Ching to decide the order of the sections of a dance just prior to performance. His interest in technology led to being be part of the team that developed “DanceForms,” the
first software for choreography. Now used by many colleges and choreographers, Cunningham has used it for all his dances since 1991.
The Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s performance at Dia:Beacon is part of the Hudson Valley Project, a partnership with Dia, Bard College, and The John Cage Trust at Bard, consisting of eight residencies over two years for the company, as well as Cunningham-and-Cage-related lectures, films, open company class/rehearsals, and site-specific performances. Since 1964 Cunningham has created 770 site-specific dance events around the world. Each Dia event will be choreographed for a different season and gallery, and allow the audience to move during the performance in order to see the choreography from different perspectives. Three-hundred-and-sixty degrees of fluid human art, every visual “a-ha” moment coming into being because of “chance” interactions as the dancers and audience are juxtaposed. For January’s performance the dancers wore gray-toned costumes. When a father holding a baby (both wearing gray), knelt near a dancer, they created a beautiful trio.
For passersby in the museum, though some choreography will be obscured, there are opportunities for revelation. Dancers heads may suddenly appear above the crowd as they jump higher then the standing audience, a body seems to float above the crowd because those holding her are obscured. People walking through the museum, dancers stretching offstage, all become germane parts of the piece. For the May 18 performance, the company will perform on two stages, one inside and one outside, adjacent to the Bruce Nauman Gallery. Nauman’s Indoor Outdoor Seating Arrangement (1999), composed of three sets of bleachers, will be sited in the space for viewers to sit on.
The Merce Cunningham Dance Company will perform on Sunday, May 18 at 2pm and 4:30pm at Dia:Beacon, 3 Beekman Street, Beacon. Tickets are free with museum admission but reservations are suggested. (845) 440-0100; www.diabeacon.org.