Merce Cunningham Dance Company at The Kennedy Center


The Merce Cunningham Dance Company, performing at the Kennedy Center this past weekend as part of its farewell tour, offered a thrilling program of three contrasting works that made a persuasive case for Cunningham’s enduring importance as a revolutionary choreographer. It was also a highly entertaining evening, full of poetry, humor, generosity of spirit, and sheer, visceral excitement.

'Sounddance' (1975). Photo courtesy of Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

The highlight of the evening was a revival of Sounddance (1975), an exhilarating work that suggests a cycle of creation and destruction, of birth and death, and an intergalactic journey all at once. Cunningham has said that the piece offers an impression of a space observed under a microscope, and life, as seen through Cunningham’s lens, is anxious, jittery, and shot through with an elemental energy. The movements were fast, abrupt, and percussive with an unrelenting and urgent momentum. The exuberance and dynamism of Cunningham’s choreography for Sounddance were matched by the sonic bursts of David Tudor’s pulsating score, a work composed purely of electronic feedback.

The dancers in Sounddance entered the space, one by one, as if propelled through a slit in the middle of a tent-like structure at the back of the stage. The 18-minute work sustaineda bristling energy as the dancers embodied what can be interpreted as the vital urgency and spastic beauty of the liminal space that constitutes life itself. The piece concluded as the dancers were pulled out of the space and disappeared back into the slit, as if swept up in a black hole or void. Veteran company member Robert Swinston, thrillingly danced the Cunningham role, and was the last to depart, spinning upstage as the music abruptly cut out and the space turnedto black. The effect was stunning.

'Squaregame' (1976). Photo courtesy of Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

The program began with Squaregame (1976), a dance in which the line between participation and spectatorship becomes blurred. For the piece, the theater’s back wall was fully exposed, and Mark Lancaster’s minimalist décor, with its white floor cloth surrounded by margins of Astroturf, suggested an athletic court or outdoor theatrical space. Duffel bags, which got moved and thrown about, marked off the square playing area.

The 13 dancers of Squaregames artistic community never left the stage but instead, throughout the dance’s fluid groupings and regroupings, moved to the margins to sit and observe and then rejoined the proceedings. There was a playfulness and an air of irreverence to the piece, with the dancers in practice clothes being carried or dragged or thrown into the air. The influence of disco seemed to inflect many of the movements. The most poignant moments, though, came in the duets and solos danced by Rashaun Mitchell, who brought a quiet but commanding assurance to the role originated by Cunningham.

'Antic Meet' (1958). Photo courtesy of Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

A revival of Antic Meet (1958), a delightful work of absurdist comedy, rounded out the program. With music by John Cage and costumes and décor by Robert Rauschenberg, Antic Meet suggested a series of vaudeville sketches heavily influenced by surrealism and absurdist theater. The dancers wore basic black costumes that throughout the piece suddenly become layered with unexplained objects: hooped skirts, sunglasses, overalls, burlap sacks, an ostentatious fur coat, a four-armed sweater with no neck. Most memorably, Daniel Madoff, dancing the Cunningham role on Friday evening, emerged with a chair attached to his back, which his duet partner alternatively sat and rested her leg on. Cunningham’s steps, including a deliciously sly parody of ballet steps, had their basis in pedestrian movement but took that movement out of their everyday contexts to ambiguous but powerfully suggestive effect.

Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes, including two intermissions.

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s concluded its two-evening run at The Kennedy Center on Saturday, December 3, 2011.
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Watch a short excerpt from Sounddance.

Watch footage of Merce Cunningham in Charles Atlas’ film A Lifetime of Dance.

Merge Cunningham Dies and video tribute by Alastair Macaulay.