Merce Cunningham, Leaving the ‘Legacy’

In the world of contemporary dance, Merce Cunningham looms large, and tonight is Seattle’s last chance to see his company perform. 

As both a dancer and choreographer Cunningham was at the forefront of the avant-garde movement, consistently pushing the boundaries of dance throughout his 50-year career. Before his death in 2009, Cunningham set up a plan for his company to tour one last time after his passing, then disband. This past Thursday was the first of two final Seattle performances for the New York-based troupe. The much-anticipated tour arrived amidst dance community buzz and high expectations—this was the work of the legendary Merce, after all.

And he did not disappoint. The choreography (three various pieces, each from a different decade) lived up to its prodigious reputation. What did disappoint was the inconsistency of dancing in two of the pieces. In both XOVER (pronounced Crossover) and BIPED, unsmooth transitions, off-timing and occasional sloppy limbs were distracting, but the visual interest of choreography in both pieces was enough to break through these detriments and shine.

XOVER (2007) was a chaotic mix of fast-paced movement as dancers dressed in white unitards entered and exited the stage in front of a backdrop designed by artist Robert Rauschenberg that depicted fragmented images of a construction site, as well as a red bicycle. The repeated swinging of arms and legs, as well as bends, jumps and twists gave the impression that the dancers were constantly off-centered, reaching out from their core and falling away from their torsos. A combination of John Cage’s Aria and Fontana Mix played on the theatre’s surround sound system, adding to the chaotic ambience of the performance. Electronic noise paired with the operatic soprano of singer Aurora Josephson was a surprising contrast that punctuated the segmented movement on stage.

The second piece, Quartet (1982) was by far the star of the show. Sensuously controlled action and reaction, beautiful pairing and perfectly smooth transitions highlighted off the dancers’ skill, strength and training. Robert Swinston, who has been with MCDC since 1980, was the lone man out to four younger dancers performing lithely around him as he watched from upstage. Rapid chaine turns populated the piece; the group whirled around the stage in ephemeral motion, regularly circling back to each other, reforming their cluster.

The second act consisted of BIPED, created in 1990 when Cunningham was 80 years old. Stunningly innovative for its time, the piece used animation and motion capture technology to transpose the movement of the dancers into digital images that were projected onto a transparent, gauzy screen that spanned the stage. Thirteen dancers performed in this piece, sometimes all at once, sometimes in groups of two, four or eight. The movement was occasionally balletic and graceful: curved arms, arched backs, strong arabesques ending in pointed toes. At times the projected images and shapes (dots, lines) distracted from the dancing, but the abstract movement (especially the repeated leaps and the partnered lifts) grounded the attention back to the choreography. 

Cunningham may be gone, but his aptly named tour will allow his legacy to continue on through work that is innovative and relevant, even decades after its creation. 

The second night of the Merce Cunningham Legacy Tour is this evening at 8:00 p.m. at The Paramount Theatre. Duets, RainForest and Split Sides will be performed. Select tickets still available here.



Image: Daniel Madoff and Julie Cunningham. Photo by Kawakahi, courtesy of STG Presents