Feature: Merce Cunningham Dance Company - final London performances

Wednesday 28 September 2011

Merce Cunningham The choreographer Merce Cunningham died two years ago, aged 90, in New York City where his eponymous and world-renowned company has been based for over half a century. During his lifetime he created dances that were – and still are – considered rigorous yet playful, sometimes challenging but also deeply rewarding. In short, his work was consistently and thrillingly cutting-edge before that term ever entered common parlance. It could also be utterly majestic – writes Donald Hutera.

**At the end of 2011 (on New Year’s Eve, to be exact) the late, great man’s company will cease to exist. Before it disbands, however, his troupe of 14 exemplary dancers will make one final – and, it has to be said, fabulously full – week-long visit to London this coming October as part of what has been dubbed the Legacy Tour.

For those who know Cunningham’s vast and gorgeously varied body of work this ‘last hurrah’ is a momentous occasion, and what a treat is in store for anyone unfamiliar with it. Dance Umbrella’s links with Cunningham stretch back to 1989. “Merce was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century,” says the organisation’s director Betsy Gregory, “in any art form.” In a bid to expand London’s dance-going audience, the performances and events in which his company will be involved this autumn are being presented by Dance Umbrella and the Barbican in partnership with East London Dance. Gregory explains the thinking behind this three-way partnership: “We want to give as many people as possible – not only dance artists, but the general public as well – the chance to get under the skin of Merce’s work. For those who are new to Cunningham’s choreography, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to interact directly with the company of dancers he trained.”

Merce Circus at Stratford Circus, 1 & 2 October 2011 First up is Merce Circus (1 & 2 Oct), a burst of immersive activities hosted by East London Dance in its headquarters at Stratford Circus. Audiences of all ages will be flowing throughout the building watching films and live performances (including Cunningham’s rarely-seen but masterfully sporty 1976 dance Squaregame, plus an electronic music ‘cabaret’), listening to talks and taking part in workshops. Chief among the items arranged for Family Afternoon (1 Oct) are workshops in which families can create their own dance ‘events’ utilising chance elements, such as the rolling of dice, that Cunningham and his partner John Cage used as a creative tool. There’s also an opportunity to learn and perform a short work from 1963 called Field Dances.

Merce Circus looks to be an unmissably fun plunge into the Cunningham aesthetic before the company launches into more formalised performances at the Barbican in the Final London Season. The opening salvo there is a Triple Bill (5 Oct) of Cunningham’s scintillating 1998 nature study Pond Way, alongside two UK premieres: Antic Meet (1958), designed by Robert Rauschenberg, is famous for being the dance in which Cunningham wore a chair strapped to his back; while Second Hand (1970) features Cage’s revamp of Erik Satie’s original music. Dating from 1983, Roaratorio (6 & 7 Oct) is a huge blast of impish glee complete with Irish fiddling. Finally there’s a pairing (on 8 Oct only) of RainForest (1968), with Andy Warhol’s magical décor of floating silver pillows, and the sublime +_BIPED_ +(a Barbican co-commission from 2000) in which large-scale, impressively ghostly digital imagery enhances rather than surpasses the dancer’s human beauty.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company 'Second Hand' Photo: Anna Finke Those responsible for running Cunningham’s company might’ve turned it into a kind of living museum after his death, but that’s not what either they or Cunningham himself wanted. Hence the career-transition packages for every single dancer and member of staff, the creation of ‘dance capsules’ that fully document scores of Cunningham dances for future revival and, of course, the celebratory farewell of the Legacy Tour. In the words of the company’s executive director Trevor Carlson, “Merce’s work won’t die. It will continue to live on.”
__
__That includes in the memories of those who have the privilege and the pleasure of seeing it first-hand. As Gregory says, “I guarantee that many people, whether they’re new to dance or seasoned attenders, will remember the experience all their lives.”

What Merce Means to Me
Everyone involved in the London-based strand of the *Legacy Tour* is passionate about Cunningham’s work. Some of the partners tell us why…

“I first saw the company in the USA when I was a teenager, and I have to admit that I couldn’t relate to it at all! But later on, as a dancer, I became fascinated by Merce’s technique which I studied both in New York and London. From there, I began to understand and appreciate the depth of his craft and his boundless invention. Merce was an inspiration to us all: even at 90, he was way ahead of the pack.”

__*Betsy Gregory, Artistic Director of Dance Umbrella*

“The Merce Cunningham Dance Company is the company that has performed the most in our BITE programme since we launched it in 1998, and since the beginning I’ve held a deep affection for it. I love the clear lines of the dancing, the fluidity, the minimalism and the relationship between music, dance and design. I also loved watching Merce each year sitting in the wings, and the twinkle in his eye, the pleasure he obviously had in being here in London and taking his curtain calls, his sense of humour, the wise words. He was always ahead of his time. Even now his company is a role model to others – and not just dance companies! The Legacy Plan is inspiring.”

__*Toni Racklin, Head of Theatre at the Barbican*

“I was first introduced to Merce’s work via Richard Alston who taught daily classes in London. I was classically trained but didn’t feel entirely comfortable in that context. I also struggled with various styles of contemporary dance. Although I was an entirely average dancer, Cunningham technique as taught by Richard was the first time I felt I could begin to find a physical language that made sense. And now for the first time the company is coming to east London, and creating something bespoke as well! It’s an extraordinary opportunity and great privilege.”

__*Kiki Gale, Artistic Director of East London Dance*

  • Donald Hutera, 2011*

MERCE CIRCUS, Stratford Circus
Sat 1 October 8pm; Sun 2 October 3pm & 8pm
Family afternoon Sat 2pm & 3pm

MERCE CUNNINGHAM DANCE COMPANY (USA)
Barbican Theatre
Programme 1 Pond Way / Second Hand / Antic Meet: Wed 5 October, 7.45pm
Programme 2 : Roaratorio: Thu 6 & Fri 7 October, 7.45pm
Programme 3 RainForest / BIPED: Sat 8 October, 7.45pm

Ocean (film) Barbican Cinema Sat 8 October 4pm

“www.danceumbrella.co.uk”:

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