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Spiritual Exercises in Physical Form 

click to enlarge The Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing "Antic Meet" at the Joyce Theater, March  2011. The company will perform at Bard's Fisher Center September 9-11. Photo by Stephanie Berger.
  • The Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing "Antic Meet" at the Joyce Theater, March 2011. The company will perform at Bard's Fisher Center September 9-11. Photo by Stephanie Berger.
On January 1, 2012, in accordance with the wishes of Merce Cunningham, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company will cease to exist. The “Legacy Plan,” revealed in 2009 prior to Cunningham’s passing at age 90, included instructions for licensing works, the creation of “Dance Capsules” (digital packages containing taped performances, notes, lighting, set and costume designs, interviews), and the stunning announcement that after a worldwide tour the company would disband. Cunningham stated at the time: “It’s really a concern about how do you preserve the elements of an art which is really evanescent, which is really like water. It can disappear.”

There will be one last opportunity to see the company perform in the area: September 9-11 at Bard College’s Fisher Center.

A practitioner of Zen and the Tao (as was his partner and collaborator, composer and musician John Cage), Cunningham’s cessation of his company is emblematic of the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence, while his Dance Capsules are emblematic of the Taoist principle of yin and ying, balanced opposing forces.

Trained in Martha Graham’s technique, with fleet movements and extraordinary jumps, Cunningham joined her company and originated roles in classic works for six years. Ultimately injured by her technique and unsatisfied artistically by her narrative idiom, he created a movement style and technique both remedial and challenging.  Juxtaposing everyday movements with complex ways of dancing and holding in stillness, it continues to be taught and revered by dancers worldwide.

Creating 50 dances and over 800 site-specific “Events,” Cunningham was inspired by the Taoist I Ching to use coin tossing as a vehicle to employ “chance” as a choreographic tool. Finding it as equally filled with artistic possibilities as deliberate decisions, chance was used to determine phrase sequences, directions, entrances/exits, and not exposing the dancers to the score until they stepped onstage. Cunningham explained, “It opened possibilities I was not aware of, rather then repeat what I already knew,” and “It was very clear that this was a different way to act: not being dependent upon the music but equal to it. You could be free and precise at the same time.”

With its nonnarrative choreography and collaborations with preeminent avant-garde artists and musicians, including Brian Eno, Morton Feldman, Lou Harrison, Pauline Oliveros, Radiohead, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol, the Cunningham oeuvre can be an acquired taste, but it is also one in which audiences are invited to co-create, as any interpretation of his work is a valid one.

Adept with colored pencils (publishing Other Animals: Drawings and Journals in 2002), Cunningham also had a keen interest in computer-generated dance art. As co-creator of the first software tool for choreography, DanceForms, he used it to create every work since 1991. For “Biped” (1999), he used motion-capture technology combining computer imagery of company members dancing with their live counterparts.

Receiving a profusion of honors for his work nationally and internationally (two of France’s Légion d’Honneur medals, named a Living Legend by the US Library of Congress, numerous university degrees), the magnitude of Cunningham’s accomplishments are mind-boggling. Photographer Mark Seliger noted after a 2009 shoot with Cunningham, “Even though he’s in a wheelchair and doesn’t dance anymore, there’s still this incredible joy of movement around him. He still had this great ability to move with his hands.”

The Fisher Center program includes “Antic Meet” (1958), with costumes including a four-armed sweater (originally knit by Cunningham) and a chair strapped to a dancer’s back; “Suite for Five” (1956), which original cast member Carolyn Brown likened to Cunningham’s statement “Dancing is a spiritual exercise in physical form”; and “Sounddance” (1975), of which Cunningham said, “I felt like doing something vigorous, fast, complex.”

Bon voyage, Maestro.

The Merce Cunnigham Dance Company performs at Bard’s Fisher Center on Friday, September 9, and Saturday, September 10, at 8pm, and on Sunday, September 11, at 2pm. Tickets: $25, $35, $45, $55. (845) 758-7900; www.fishercenter.bard.edu.

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