Chance meeting: At age 87, choreographer Merce Cunningham still works on the cutting edge.

This week he finally rolls the dice in Louisville

“BiPED”: Photo by Tony Dougherty  The Merce Cunningham Dance Company performs “BiPED,” which premiered in 1999 and uses a scrim and costumes that reflect light, allowing the dancers to seemingly appear and disappear. It is part of Friday’s program at the Brown The

“BiPED”: Photo by Tony Dougherty The Merce Cunningham Dance Company performs “BiPED,” which premiered in 1999 and uses a scrim and costumes that reflect light, allowing the dancers to seemingly appear and disappear. It is part of Friday’s program at the Brown The

Last fall, before entering New York City’s Joyce Theater for a performance by the renowned Merce Cunningham Dance Company, most audience members checked in something valuable, mainly credit cards. In exchange they were loaned an iPod for that evening’s world premiere performance of the vanguard choreographer’s piece “eyeSpace.”

The debut had arts aficionados buzzing — a common occurrence for almost any work created by Cunningham, the legendary choreographer who is now 87. “eyeSpace” was the bill’s final offering, following a portion from the company’s “Scenario,” initially staged in 1997, and “Crises” from 1960.

As the lights dimmed, anticipation rose as audience members jostled to get their iPods adjusted. This performance of “eyeSpace” featured décor by artist Henry Samelson and music by Mikel Rouse. Samelson’s décor illuminated the stage, bright, electric-like scarlet with swaths of brilliant blue, and matched by the dancers’ costumes. As the dancers danced for 20 minutes, audience members could let their iPods pick songs randomly or they could select one of Rouse’s tracks. But the dancers did not hear the music; they set their bodies in motion according to the time count determined by Cunningham, as they had done in rehearsals.

I skipped around looking for something soothing. The day had been quite hectic, with intense rain and wind, and that afternoon, a small plane had accidentally flown into an Upper East Side building. I listened to entire songs with a folk-rock sound, akin to Wilco or The Jayhawks. I also removed my earbuds to listen to the sounds Rouse programmed to resonate in the open space.

Merce Cunningham, now 87, founded his legendary dance company in 1953.

Merce Cunningham, now 87, founded his legendary dance company in 1953.

I watched the 12 dancers as they rotated and projected their bodies into sharp angles. Sometimes the sequence spoke a language of trains, as dancers swiftly crossed each other’s paths while traversing the stage toward a seemingly determined destination. There were various groupings, including trios and duets. In one part, two trios danced in isolated spaces on stage. Each echoed the movements of the other group in a physical and song-like round that played itself out before the groups disbanded. Then the females and males became three couples. Later, two women and one man danced, executing demanding steps that seemed to tease gravity. During one extraordinary moment, two dancers in a splayed stance touched across a space, creating a feeling of aching distance.

“This is a Bronx-bound C express train,” a voice bellowed over the sound system. With that I sensed a familiar feeling, one I’ve often had on the city’s subway trains and in stations while listening to music or narratives on headphones and watching passersby. The setting evoked a personal, intimate feeling of watching the world to my own soundtrack, even among hundreds of other people. And I realized the people around me were probably making their own connections.

Merce Cunningham’s phenomenal body of work is not based on music or narrative. Meeting the audience after the October performance, he spoke of his enduring philosophy: “Music and dance are both time arts. They are two things occupying the same time.”

While his style is rooted in classical dance, it adds a highly athletic component that demands physical control and challenges dancers mentally. His phrasing consists of bold angles, jumps and broad steps, often tempered by meticulous movements of isolated body parts.

He embraces innovation, particularly the idea of chance. That began in the 1950s after he read a translation of the “I Ching,” the ancient Chinese text that focuses on the inevitability of change, with an introduction by psychologist Carl Jung. Cunningham has often employed the idea of chance, for example throwing dice or pennies to determine a dancer’s direction and manner of movement or to decide which piece dancers will perform on a given evening.

“When I choreograph a piece by tossing pennies — by chance, that is — I am finding my resources in that play, which is not the product of my will, but which is an energy and a law which I too obey,” Cunningham wrote in a 1955 essay, “The Impermanent Art.” “But the feeling I have when I compose in this way is that I am in touch with a natural resource far greater than my own personal inventiveness could ever be, much more universally human than the particular habits of my own practice, and organically rising out of common pools of motor impulses.”

His philosophy also presents a liberating idea: chance provides individuals with new and unforeseen choices and the possibility of unanticipated and even revolutionary change. His career and personal life demonstrate that he neither balks at nor fears change, but revels in its possibilities.

Like most of his work, “eyeSpace” exemplifies how he enacts his philosophy. This Friday — when the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performs for the first time in Louisville — it will present “eyeSpace” again. But this time I won’t have the same experience I did in New York. Nor could I have had the same experience last month, when the company premiered “eyeSpace” during a Merce extravaganza in Miami.

For “eyeSpace,” Cunningham, ever the artist devising possible permutations for his work, commissioned three composers (Rouse and two others) to create separate scores, and two artists to fashion their own décor. There are 20- and 40-minute versions, which let the choreographer vary the décor and music to create new combinations. “It makes no difference to the dancers since the music is independent from the dance,” company manager Rebecca Wilhelms says.

During the Miami performance of “eyeSpace,” the company danced for 40 minutes. Miami artist Daniel Arsham fashioned the décor, with the electronic score by David Behrman (only Rouse’s composition uses the iPod). During a performance Tuesday in Cedar Falls, Iowa, composer Annea Lockwood’s work premiered with the 40-minute version of the piece and décor by Arsham.

Louisville will see a new combination: a 20-minute dance, Samelson’s décor, and scores by Behrman and Lockwood, which are meant to be played separately or together. Moreover, the performance here will feature one of the largest groups of pit musicians during a company performance (Behrman, John King, Takehisa Kosugi, Loren Dempster, Stephan Moore and Christian Wolff).

Cunningham has committed himself wholly to dance from his earliest years. Growing up in Centralia, Wash., he studied tap and later attended Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts for theater, but soon began taking dance classes. There he met John Cage, who accompanied many classes on piano. In 1939 he moved to New York City after Martha Graham invited him to join her company. In the city he explored every dance form he could; he studied at the American School of Ballet, which is affiliated with the New York City Ballet, learning George Balanchine’s techniques.

After six years with Graham he left to pursue his own vision. He performed solo work with Cage, who was then laying the foundation for his career as an avant-garde composer, and in the summer of 1953 he launched the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at Black Mountain College near Asheville, N.C., with Cage as musical director. Cunningham endured naysayers and hostile reviews during the early years but went on to create nearly 200 pieces.

He has distinguished his work through collaborations with contemporary composers and visual artists. Besides Cage, he has partnered with Kosugi, King, David Tudor and Ben Weber; musical groups such as Kronos Quartet, Radiohead and Sigur Ros; and renowned visual artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol.

In keeping with his commitment to the notions of chance and change, Cunningham has embraced technology, from video to computer programs. The latter includes DanceForms, a 3-D motion-creation software program. Because he suffers from acute arthritis, Cunningham no longer dances, so the program helps him create his visions for the company and see new possibilities for human movement.

“Once we stood up on two legs, we were caught and have to work that way,” he told Theatre magazine in 2004. “But there is always some other way to do it.”

Jennifer Goggans: Photo courtesy of Jennifer Goggans  Jennifer Goggans in Malpensa, Italy, during a tour with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

Jennifer Goggans: Photo courtesy of Jennifer Goggans Jennifer Goggans in Malpensa, Italy, during a tour with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

That vision has earned Cunningham a reputation as a truly cutting-edge artist. He has received some of the world’s highest awards in the arts: the Kennedy Center Honors and a MacArthur Fellowship (both in 1985); the National Medal of Arts (1990); Officier of the Légion d’Honneur in France (2004); and the Praemium Imperiale in Tokyo (2005).

The foundation of Cunningham’s philosophy is distinct: dance is independent from but equal to music, built on physical movement and always full of new possibilities. As such, Cunningham directs company rehearsals in silence. Steps are not counted in time with music but in time that Cunningham crafts and then measures with a stopwatch.

He used to instruct dancers by demonstrating the moves himself, but these days he first designs movements with DanceForms, then verbally instructs dancers to execute movements he already knows and those he has designed with the program. Over many rehearsals he goes on to explore and shape those movements, sometimes improvising. He later polishes a piece by working on detail and coaxing the dancers to articulate phrasing. He may fixate on one dancer’s style in interpreting a movement, then use that to shape a piece.
During his after-performance conversation with the audience in New York, Cunningham spoke of this tactic: “Each person dances differently, just as they are different people, and I take that into account.”

Jennifer Goggans, a 30-year-old dancer with the company and an Owensboro native , has been studying and performing under Cunningham’s guidance for the last six years. “The whole experience has opened my mind as well as my ears,” she says, and adds that she now thinks of sounds differently. “(The choreography) draws a more intellectual mind.”

“It’s like playing with physics,” says Andrea Weber, who joined as a dancer in 2004 after a year as an apprentice.

Both dancers say the physical demands of Cunningham’s choreography motivate them as much as his ideas.
“I feel it’s still pushing the limits of what dance is,” Goggans says.

As chance would have it, Cunningham is still creating and still taking his company on tour, to cities it has previously visited and also places where it’s never performed. Until 2006, Budapest was in the latter category. This week, finally and thankfully, the company can cross Louisville off the list.

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