Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the Kennedy Center

Daniel Madoff and Julie Cunningham dance in an earlier performance of
Daniel Madoff and Julie Cunningham dance in an earlier performance of "XOVER." (By Kawakahi Amina)
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By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 15, 2008

In their final collaboration, Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg produced a work that buzzed with ideas, not the least of which was a fierce and disquieting notion of the eternal. And given the lifetime of insight these artists and frequent creative partners bring to bear, it is wise to take heed.

But what, exactly, is the message? This is usually an unnecessary question to ask of a Cunningham dance, for he isn't one to tell stories or to settle on concrete ideas in his works. Yet last year's stimulating and unforgettable "XOVER," which the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performed this weekend at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, felt different somehow. Its brazen momentousness -- dominated by a towering detail of Rauschenberg's painting called "Plank," which combines a bicycle, broken barriers and hulking bits of pipe -- overshadowed the other works on the program. And as you pondered Rauschenberg's big picture, hanging over the dancers like a surreal mountainscape, it seemed that the whole thing was, in fact, about the Big Picture.

"XOVER" is meant to be read as "crossover," a term rich in meanings, from the basic action of dancers crossing the stage to genetic processes, computer network connections and psychic phenomena of spirits and the afterlife. Certainly the idea of combining and entwining opposite directions and energies was in the choreography for 13 dancers in stark white all-over leotards. (These were also Rauschenberg's design, recalling his all-white canvases of the 1950s.)

The movement was bouncy and big. In one extended duet, the dancers clasped hands to hold each other up as they stretched out to eye-catching extremes, as in a balletic pas de deux. Cunningham's idiosyncratic technique has always existed somewhere between the formal elegance of ballet and the knotty muscular tension of Martha Graham's style; "XOVER" borrowed grandly from ballet's lightness and long lines.

The backdrop was more of a puzzle. Rauschenberg worked with Cunningham on "XOVER" some months before he died at age 82 in May. Perhaps death, or a reflection on life, was in his thoughts. The backdrop is derived from a large-scale 2003 painting, centering on a vivid orange mountain bike that brings reckless action and forward motion so powerfully to mind. Barriers shatter in its path until you get to the heaviness of the enormous pipe fitting at the painting's far right, poised in an ominous way. Is it waiting to roll over and bury you? End of story, no matter how productive your life was? Or does it represent a tunnel, a crossing-over, salvation through a sewer?

Pair this with the eerie sound design: two pieces by the late John Cage, Cunningham's longtime romantic partner, artistic co-conspirator and music director. The compositions were both performed live, and simultaneously -- the choppy instrumental "Fontana Mix" and "Aria," a mess of vocalizations ranging from gibberish to loud laughter, performed by Joan La Barbara. This was more hell than heaven, but it could be I'm just stuck in a mortal's fairy tale of eternity. So I keep wondering where the sewer leads.

The company has dedicated this season, which marks Cunningham's 90th birthday, to Rauschenberg. A second of his collaborations was on this program: "Crises," for which Rauschenberg created color-saturated leotards in cherry red, papaya and sunny yellow. You looked at the five dancers and thought of tropical fruit. And fittingly, the work was full of juice and high spirits. The music was Conlon Nancarrow's "Rhythm Studies for Player Piano," plunky pieces with a ragtime jauntiness. The dancers burst into space, light and fast; they crouched and punched the air.

The energy moved a notch higher when Holley Farmer was onstage. If the company had a prima ballerina, she would be it; her calm strength, stamina and plush refinement are among the glories of the modern-dance world. She danced in every work at Friday's performance, but was particularly spotlighted here. Farmer is your window onto infinity -- she can hold a balance while slowly stretching a leg up by her ear, one side of her body cranked open to its fullest. Then, still firmly rooted, she might also shiver her hands at the other dancers like a high-strung hummingbird, or wiggle each shoulder independently, as if itching for wings.

Cunningham's works aren't always so easy to love, however. "EyeSpace," from 2007, was a much colder thing, a piece that seemed to spring directly from the computer software Cunningham uses as he composes strings of steps. The trouble is that the dancing that results can look mechanical and awkward, as it did here. The icy mercury-colored costumes and grayish lighting didn't help, nor did the music, David Behrman's popping, buzzing "Long Throw," which described nothing so much as desolation and wind. Cunningham created three versions of this dance; this was the longest, at 40 minutes. Unfortunately, it was first on the program, and the theater emptied a bit afterward. It's a pity, considering what followed.

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