From radical to mainstream: why Merce Cunningham matters

“In some ways it feels like the past four seasons of presenting dance at @nyuadartscenter were preparing us for this moment” tweeted NYUAD Arts Center head Bill Bragin a couple of days ago. The occasion in question is the arrival of the company of the Centre National de Danse Contemporaine for a show at The Arts Center on 30 October.

And the significance? Under its director Robert Swinston, the Angers-based CNDC has become one of the world’s leading guardians of the technique and legacy of Merce Cunningham (along with the NY-based Merce Cunningham Trust); and Merce Cunningham is the man who revolutionised modern dance.

Says Bill Bragin: “While we’ve been focusing on contemporary performance, especially within dance, we’ve been also been trying to introduce some post-modern dance history over the past few years. And Merce’s ideas about art have been the wellspring from which some of the other artists we’ve previously presented, like Wayne McGregor, Lucinda Childs, and Trisha Brown, have drawn.”

Merce Cunningham: over a career that spanned more than 50 years, he revolutionised contemporary dance – and never stopped innovating

Merce Cunningham’s initial focus was on pure movement; he rejected the idea that dance had to tell a story, believing the movement of the body in space was the essence of the art form. Just as in abstract idea, the principle was that the art should have its own reality and not be an imitation of some other thing.

In practice this often means the dancers holding balance for long periods, executing different rhythms and movements in the legs, torso, and arms at the same time, with frequent changes of direction and no rhythm from the music to count on. In short, Cunningham’s style is both a physical and mental challenge for the dancer.

And Cunningham saw dance in a wider context of art; he worked with visual artists and his friendship with John Cage exemplified his view of dance emancipated from the need to follow the structures imposed by conventional music.

Predictably, this wasn’t to everyone’s taste. “Merce’s work was so ahead of its time that it can still raise questions for some audiences” notes Bill Bragin delicately. Particularly in the early days, it was not uncommon for audiences to walk out of Merce Cunningham performances.

But Cunningham was committed, and he didn’t stand still. Throughout his life he continued innovating in his dance and his choreography, including the pioneering use of new technologies as a way of creating dance.

One of the pieces that CNDC is bringing to Abu Dhabi exemplifies this. BIPED was originally created in 1999 when Cunningham was 80 years old; in the early 1990s he had come across a pioneering programme which produced 3D wireframes of the human figure that could be made to do all kinds of movements, including spins, jumps, and leaps.

He used the software to experiment with choreographic ideas which he then tried out with his dancers; often the computer-generated sequences could not be executed in real life, but they would lead to movement choices that he hadn’t expected or done before – and that was what Cunningham wanted, to get outside what was comfortable or habitual. “It’s when dancing gets awkward that it starts to get interesting,” he said.

Cunningham famously pioneered the use of choreographic software in the late 1980s, using a programme called LifeForms (later developed as DanceForms). The computer could generate movement possibilities beyond the imagination of the human mind and body …

He was involved in developing the programme further, and he used that to generate every work he made after 1991 – including BIPED, widely considered his masterwork. BIPED is right on the junction of dance and digital arts, for it also has a projected décor using motion capture technology – projections of moving images are superimposed on the dancers, performing the same movements as the human figures in a fascinating ballet of abstract and multiplied figures – and a haunting electronic score by Gavin Byars.

BIPED in development

BIPED has retained its somewhat otherworldly ambiance, and for at least one critic it summoned images of death and transcendence. This is a piece that pushes the envelope of physicality but also stimulates the imagination.

The other Merce Cunningham classic in the programme for The Arts Center, is the shorter of the two pieces: How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run, first danced back in 1965, used text and music by John Cage. Narrators read a series of anecdotes drawn from John Cage’s 1958 lecture Indeterminacy, with music also by Cage.

From How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run

Some of the stories have punch lines, others don’t; they are speeded up or slowed down to make them fit into one-minute chunks. At the same time the dancers give us a whirl of vigorous athletic moves. It’s based on the sporty title, but it’s not about sport; you can make up your own mind about the “meaning”, but this is conceptual art applied to dance – it is what it is, and any interpretation or reaction is entirely your own business.

We judge this to be a rare opportunity to see what all the fuss was about and to consider Merce Cunningham’s importance. His own professional life in dance started with six years performing with the company of Martha Graham, herself a massively influential figure in dance. He started his own troupe, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, in 1953, and that company performed and toured for 58 years. Its last performances were in December 2011, as it was Cunningham’s wish that the company be disbanded two years after his death.

For 30 of those years Robert Swinston was part of the company, first as a dancer and later as Cunningham’s faithful assistant. After Cunningham’s death in 2009 he became Director of Choreography and maintained the company’s repertoire during that final Legacy Tour (2010-2011).

At CNDC, which he took over in 2013, Swinston has fostered the spirit and techniques of his master and friend. It’s by no means a Cunningham Dance Company lookalike – the first priority of the project is to create new choreographic work and to develop new dancers as well as dances. But CNDC also recognises the value of legacy. As Swinston put it recently, “the idea is that while you continue to reflect on your history, you find ways to bring new life to it, or create new life out of it … “

For dance, Merce Cunningham provided exactly that: he created something new, something unexpected. Even after all these years, it still seems new and unexpected. Don’t miss the chance.

BIPED and How to Pass, Kick, Fall & Run are at The Arts Centre on 30 October at 8pm. Tickets are AED 100.


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