You could dub the upcoming dance season the return of the familiar. Such heavy-hitters as Bill T. Jones (a tour stop for his bio-musical “Fela!” at the Shakespeare Theatre starts Friday), the Martha Graham Dance Company (at George Mason University on Oct. 21) and the Mark Morris Dance Group (Kennedy Center, Jan. 26-28) make welcome comebacks to the area.
The Suzanne Farrell Ballet marks its 10th anniversary with boilerplate Balanchine, Oct. 12-16 at the Kennedy Center. And Nov. 2-6, the Washington Ballet reprises Septime Webre’s “The Great Gatsby,” unveiled just a year and a half ago.
Look to Beijing Dance Theater (Kennedy Center, Oct. 26-27), Ballet Hispanico (with a new work by Ronald K. Brown, Oct. 28 at Strathmore) and the Mariinsky Ballet’s all-Fokine program for intriguing and less-familiar offerings at the Kennedy Center, Jan. 17-22. (From the venerable St. Petersburg company, we’ll finally get a long-overdue look at Mikhail Fokine’s “Scheherezade,” which set Paris abuzz in 1910.)
But if the unfamiliar is a bit scarce among this fall’s dance performances, that doesn’t mean the season lacks excitement. In fact, the most dramatic moment is sure to come from one of the dance world’s mainstays. We’re talking about the final Washington engagement of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which will perform Dec. 2-3 at the Kennedy Center in the last days of its Legacy Tour. After its worldwide travels, culminating in performances Dec. 29-31 at New York’s Park Avenue Armory, the company that Cunningham founded in 1953 will fold. Consider it a second death for the revered choreographer, who left this world in 2009.
Orphaned dance has a poor prognosis. The dance field, and especially modern dance, is ill-suited to keeping its history alive. With most modern-dance companies formed as vehicles for their directors, there is little interest in acquiring works by other artists. This means that typically, when a modern-dance choreographer dies, much of his or her work dies as well.
The Graham company, in its 85th season, is a notable exception. Her company’s ongoing survival will be neatly juxtaposed against the Cunningham troupe’s funeral march — the two troupes will be seen here within months of each other. Janet Eilber, the former dancer who directs the Graham company, is a zealous promoter of Graham’s work and how it still speaks to today’s world. The Oct. 21 program at George Mason University, titled “Prelude and Revolt,” will spotlight the deep emotions of Graham’s early years with “Panorama,” a call to social activism from 1935, and “Lamentation” from 1930.
But Cunningham’s company will not be as fortunate as Graham’s. The decision to disband it after Cunningham’s death was made while the choreographer was still alive; perhaps none of his disciples burned with a Graham-dancer passion to carry on without him. There is also the question of how marketable the creations would be without the famous founder taking a bow alongside his dancers.
Therefore, with the works set to expire, the troupe’s last performances here should not be missed. On view will be the extraordinary boundary-busting that helped forge modern dance into a vital American art form. In “Antic Meet,” for instance, you’ll witness Cunningham’s insistence on contemporary music (John Cage was the group’s music director until his death in 1992, and created the score for this 1958 work) and contemporary painters. (Robert Rauschenberg was the company’s resident designer from 1954 to 1964, and his contributions to “Antic Meet” include fur coats, parachute dresses and a chair strapped to one dancer’s back.) Also on the bill are “Sounddance” from 1975 and “Squaregame” from 1976. In all three you’ll see how Cunningham spun kinetic gold from a mix of ballet’s lightness, the muscular weightedness that he absorbed from his years in Graham’s company and his own discoveries about twisting and releasing the body.
Not everyone loves Cunningham. His work could prompt violent reactions. Back in the ’60s, Cunningham, Cage and Rauschenberg elicited hurled tomatoes and eggs for some of their more abrasive-sounding, visually jolting, structure-defying productions. Even after Cunningham gained esteem as an icon of innovation, he was still splitting the public into those who saw his work as cold and cerebral and those who regarded it as revelatory.
Just a few weeks before his death, in fact, his company inspired a shouting match between a couple of patrons at Wolf Trap with a performance of the invigorating — if earsplitting — “Sounddance.” This geyser-force creation takes its title from a line in James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake”: “In the buginning is the woid, in the muddle is the sounddance and thereinofter you’re in the unbewised again.”
“Unbewised” just about sums up the dance world without Cunningham’s choreography in it. College troupes may reconstruct some of his works; a few ballet companies may keep his gentler pieces in their repertoires. But once his troupe is dissolved, the works will no longer exist as Cunningham created them.
Come December, Washington will be having one heck of a dance moment.