Merce Cunningham, Still New

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 3, 2006

You might expect an artist to get a little tired after 50-plus years of creating, maybe take things a bit easy. Not Merce Cunningham. The weekend's challenging, beautifully performed program by the Merce Cunningham Dance Ensemble at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater opened with a mind-bending work made a year and a half ago by a man who, at 86, continues to expand what contemporary dancing can look and feel like.

"Views on Stage" does not rank among Cunningham's classics; as delicate as it is, with spidery movement and barely-there music, it lacks momentum. You never feel pulled along. But it shows an intriguing side to Cunningham, the venerable modern-dance maverick. Surprisingly, "Views on Stage" is very much like a neoclassical ballet. And this is not just because all the dancers, men as well as women, are wearing filmy white skirts.

It's the lightness of "Views" that is balletic, and the dancers' pulled-up torsos, and their energy that shoots upward. There are lots of quick, effortless jumps, legs extended high overhead, and pointed toes. There's even a genuine ballet step or two thrown in.

The dancers have ballet manners, that sense of cool gentility, as though they're at a very proper tea party -- that's taking place on Mars. Because this is Cunningham, after all; there's still that quirky robotic feel to the dancing, with the dancers folding and dipping and vibrating as if they are being remote-controlled.

But if you imagine that the Ernesto Neto melting-bubblegum sculpture hanging overhead is a futuristic chandelier, and you consider John Cage's score -- silence occasionally interrupted with piano chords -- is a kind of outer-space nocturne, the whole thing starts to look as though Cunningham is putting a one-act abstract ballet on a tilt.

The Cunningham dancers are among the strongest, most heroic anywhere. Their alertness and focus sustained "Views on Stage," while the other two works on the program, "Fabrications" and "Sounddance," drew impressively on their stamina and precision. Those works also made up for the first piece's musical minimalism.

"Fabrications," from 1987, was accompanied by an Emanuel Dimas de Melo Pimenta composition that sounded like roaring electronic feedback with an underbelly of radio static. Horrible stuff, but it had an interesting effect: In the act of trying to tune it out, you focused on the inherent rhythm in the dance steps themselves. The dancers paired up, moved with crisp certitude through staccato sections, and one that was almost waltzy, but came to a quick end. It was a curiously poignant display, the almost-ballroom steps and the loud blur of sound suggested a state where human connection could not quite take hold.

"Sounddance," from 1975, provided a cathartic release as the evening's closer, with the dancers bursting onstage full of nervous energy, pulling and tugging at one another, jolting around as if suddenly electrified, and abruptly disappearing. David Tudor's score was another electronic earful, like the whup-whup of a hundred helicopters alongside bumblebees on steroids.

Afterward, Cunningham appeared onstage in a question-and-answer session with the audience. Dressed in a pinstripe suit, with his white hair thinning but still flying out in all directions, he looked frail and spoke softly. To a question about the evening's bizarre music, he replied that when "Sounddance" and "Fabrications" premiered, "the music was, for the public in general, a catastrophe." But he said his company's continued use of unconventional accompaniment "has enlarged the scope of what dance music can be."

Undoubtedly. And the same can be said for his company's dancing. Today, the Cunningham troupe is no less a force to be reckoned with than in the 1950s when it started.

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