Artistic Director for the Flynn Center
It is always a thrill to welcome the Merce Cunningham Dance Company back to the Flynn. For me, personally, seeing his dancers reminds me of my first modern dance experience as an audience member, 40 years ago, experiencing a fresh language that was totally surprising, even intoxicating. Seeing Cunningham’s choreography then was to luxuriate in following movement that seemed impossible—often done at a speed that was incalculable, the mind and the senses working overtime, connecting dots that weren’t necessarily meant to be connected—and the athletic, larger-than-life dancer. How could they move that way? How did they do that? They are still doing that, one move more remarkable than the last. This is what I remember of that first contact; my first modern dance experience, which was also my first Merce Cunningham experience.
Merce, now 87, is still known as an experimenter, taking chances on new technology, making new moves generated by computers. He no longer dances on stage, but his mind is still working overtime—still, he says, fascinated by movement and what the body can do. When you see the Merce Cunningham Dance Company on the Flynn MainStage on March 16, you’ll see a wide range of his choreography, including revivals of Sounddance (1975)—known for its high speed and complex torso and foot movements, giving the impression of bodies observed under a microscope—and Crises (1960), a work whose atmosphere John Cage called “harsh and erotic” to his newest work, eyeSpace (2006).
In eyeSpace, Merce will give each audience member the ability to participate in creation of the sound score of the piece. You are encouraged to bring your own iPod—with music downloaded from Mikel Rouse's International Cloud Atlas—inspired by John Cage, Cunningham’s long-time collaborator and partner. (Instructions for free downloads of Rouse's score will be provided to ticket buyers.) Or, if you don’t have an iPod, you can borrow an iPod Shuffle at the Flynn, provided by the company courtesy of Apple Computers—or, failing that, you can watch the dance to another soundscore piped into the theatre). When eyeSpace begins, you will be able to shuffle the music and create your own soundscore for the work.
This experience is in the tradition of one of Cunningham’s major contributions to dance (Mikhail Baryshnikov said that “Cunningham reinvented dance”), that is, declaring dance's independence from music. Merce’s dancers often rehearsed to silence—so as to deeply learn the steps, to focus on the movement independent of the music. Sometimes the dancers didn’t hear the music until days before they were to perform the piece. And sometimes Cunningham turned the tables and changed the score they would dance to without notice. His music, set, and costume collaborators were also encouraged to create independently. He trusted that the outcome would produce a new way of seeing things; he believed in the mystery of chance. It was a modern view and he helped to define a modern sensibility. He trusted the vision of other artists he worked with and eagerly awaited to see how the various pieces would fit together.
Merce talked about the power of chance. He said the natural sequence in movement might go something like this: walk, skip, jump, and fall. But if you invert or reverse or move that sequence around, and change it again, dancers will use their bodies in unexpected ways, and audiences will see things they haven’t seen before. In teaching dancers to try the impossible, he developed a technique that has influenced dancers, choreographers, and audiences all over the world.
Other Flynn / Merce Cunningham Dance Company will include a masterclass with the company on the MainStage and A Day of Dance for high school students, both on the day of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performance, March 16.
Prior to the performance, at 6:30 pm, the Flynn will host a FREE pre-performance lecture with David Vaughan, long-time archivist for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, in the Flynn's Hoehl Studio Lab. Vaughan will discuss the company's illustrious history, the Cunningham technique, and the influence of the choreographer on the development of contemporary art in America.
above center: Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the Joyce Theater in the first iteration of eyeSpace, with décor by Henry Samelson and music by Mikel Rouse. Photograph by Tony Dougherty.