Bryars, the celebrated experimental composer who worked with Cunningham’s longtime musical collaborator, John Cage, in the 1960s, was in the pit playing upright bass for both pieces Thursday. Lucky for us, to be so close to the Cunningham-Cage royalty.
The artistic bloodline is important, given Cunningham’s death in 2009. He would have been 100 on April 16, and this program, which continues through Saturday, is part of the “Merce Cunningham at 100” celebrations across the country, as well as in Europe, Latin America and Canada.
The CNDC, as the French company is called, offered a rare look at two Cunningham pieces from the 1990s. Both “Beach Birds” and “BIPED” were lovingly reconstructed and staged by Robert Swinston, the CNDC director who was a longtime member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.
But hands-on connection to a dance isn’t enough to bring it to life. The works looked beautiful, but after getting underway, they felt somewhat lackluster. “Beach Birds” takes your breath away when it begins, with the dancers silhouetted in silence on a darkened stage, each one with knees slightly bent. They look like an array of Noguchi sculptures, stylized and sleek. They’re even more beautiful when the lights come up, and they haven’t moved. They still have that look of perching, and they’re swaying so gently, it’s almost imperceptible. When Cage’s music begins, it sounds like wind and soft rain.
The dancers look like birds, all in white except for a black stripe across the chest and arms. Delicately, they hop and dip. They extend a foreleg or raise a knee; they balance for long periods. It’s a lovely catalogue of what made Cunningham such a revolutionary. His discovery was quite simple, really: He was fascinated with the bones and muscles of the body, and with their still, sculptural possibilities as much as their range of motion and actions. This led him to a radical rethinking of dance, as pure form. This is what’s going on in “Beach Birds.”
However birdlike the dancers seem, Cunningham isn’t telling a story about birds or beaches. His dances exist entirely on their own, without plot or characters, without emotionalism or psychology. Without message.
His work was in step with the contemporary-art world of the mid-20th century — with so many abstract painters, sculptors and musicians — but it radically swings away from most other dance. At times slow and repetitive, Cunningham’s pieces aren’t always easy to stick with.
It’s exceptionally difficult to keep a master’s work going without the master there, especially in Cunningham’s work, which isn’t tied to musical counts and which relies on the often-unusual shapes and body mechanics of his own invention. At the Kennedy Center there were a few miscues among the dancers, a few moments when uniformity was missing or positions were shaky. As stripped-down as it seems, Cunningham’s choreography is extraordinarily demanding on the body and the memory.
“BIPED” fared a bit better, largely because it is more energized and visually rich. The dancers are sleekly clad in iridescent silver. They leap and twist behind a scrim, and lines of bright color are projected around them, adding a strong, dynamic quality. At times, animated images loom over them, created from the computer software Cunningham sometimes used to develop his choreography. The scrim is a striking theatrical device, but also a metaphor: As marvelous as this dance looked in its decor and construction, and with Bryars’s mesmerizing and mysterious sound world, watching it somehow felt like an imperfect glimpse at a world gone by.
Merce Cunningham at 100 with Compagnie Centre National de Danse Contemporaine Through Saturday at the Kennedy Center. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.