Shuf­fle and flow Merce Cun­ning­ham brings a new dance, and a thou­sand iPods, to Orange County.

Los Angeles Times - - Calendar - By Susan Josephs

BACK in the mid-’50s, when he faced both fi­nan­cial woes and the snob­bery of the New York dance es­tab­lish­ment, chore­og­ra­pher Merce Cun­ning­ham started tak­ing his fledg­ling troupe on the road for “one-night stands” at any venue he could book. In a VW bus bought with bor­rowed money, “we used to travel great dis­tances. Af­ter all, per­form­ing for one night was bet­ter than noth­ing,” he says with a chuckle. Speak­ing by phone from his New York stu­dio, the 88-year-old Cun­ning­ham — now a mod­ern dance icon — ad­mits to fond mem­o­ries of those days. “I re­mem­ber a great deal of laugh­ter, no mat­ter how dif­fi­cult it was,” he says.

Half a cen­tury later, that sheer zest for putting on a show has not abated, as spectators at the Orange County Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter are due to find out tonight. Far from re-cre­at­ing yes­ter­day’s mas­ter­pieces, Cun­ning­ham’s dancers will per­form a new work, with a score com­posed for iPods pro­grammed to “shuf­fle,” and an­other piece de­vised es­pe­cially for the cen­ter’s Renée and Henry Segerstrom Con­cert Hall.

Tonight will, in fact, mark the first time that Cun­ning­ham’s com­pany per­forms in mul­ti­ple sites in the course of one night, while OCPAC will set a new artis­tic prece­dent not only in uti­liz­ing most of its venues for one pre­sen­ta­tion but also by hav­ing com­mis­sioned a site-spe­cific dance for the new­est of them.

Seek­ing the an­tithe­sis “of the canned per­for­mance, where we’re just one stop among 30 cities, we wanted to cre­ate a liv­ing, breath­ing event de­signed specif­i­cally for the cen­ter,” says Aaron Egi­gian, OCPAC’s se­nior di­rec­tor of mu­sic pro­gram­ming. “We also felt that Merce is one of the lead­ing if not the great­est chore­og­ra­pher of the last 50 years, and we were thrilled at his will­ing­ness to cre­ate some­thing this unique.” [

“Think of it as a taster’s Merce,” says Robert Swin­ston, a long­time Cun­ning­ham dancer and as­sis­tant to the chore­og­ra­pher who has spent the bet­ter part of a life­time cham­pi­oning the sin­gu­lar aes­thetic phi­los­o­phy he de­vel­oped with his creative and life part­ner, the late com­poser John Cage: Al­though danc­ing and mu­sic may oc­cur si­mul­ta­ne­ously, nei­ther has to be in sync with the other.

Tonight’s show is to be­gin with a talk by Columbia Col­lege Chicago dance pro­fes­sor Bon­nie Brooks on how to watch a Cun­ning­ham per­for­mance and end with UC Irvine stu­dents per­form­ing a Cun­ning­ham dance, “Play­ground,” in the cen­ter’s Com­mu­nity Arts Plaza, com­plete with au­dio­vi­sual ef­fects sup­plied by Chap­man Univer­sity and Cal State Fuller­ton stu­dents. In be­tween, the au­di­ence will watch the work that Cun­ning­ham cre­ated for the 2,000seat Renée and Henry Segerstrom Con­cert Hall, mi­grate over to the plaza where the Cun­ning­ham dance film “Beach Birds for Cam­era” will be shown to live mu­sic and, with iPods in hand (more on those later), wind up in the older, 3,000-seat Segerstrom Hall for the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia pre­miere of “eye­S­pace.”

For neo­phyte view­ers of Cun­ning­ham’s nar­ra­tive-free, mu­si­cally in­de­pen­dent dances, Swin­ston ad­vises, “Approach them

Merce Cun­ning­ham Dance Com­pany

like paint­ings in a mu­seum, where you’re not try­ing to sum up what you’re ex­pe­ri­enc­ing, you’re sim­ply mov­ing from paint­ing to paint­ing.”

Take Cun­ning­ham’s latest site-spe­cific work. Called “MinEvent,” the 37-minute dance will be per­formed in Segerstrom Con­cert Hall by the en­tire 14mem­ber com­pany and culled from works in Cun­ning­ham’s reper­tory dat­ing from 1967 to 2003. It is the most re­cent in a long line of col­lage-like works that Cun­ning­ham has cre­ated, be­gin­ning with a dance for a Vi­enna mu­seum in 1964. Since then, th­ese pieces, all called “Events” or “MinEvents,” de­pend­ing on length, have been per­formed in, to name just three lo­ca­tions, Grand Cen­tral Sta­tion, the Pi­azza San Marco in Venice and a beach in Aus­tralia.

Work­ing with pho­to­graphs of the new hall for guid­ance, Cun­ning­ham chose move­ment se­quences “for a space that was built for mu­sic. I al­ways say yes in­stead of no,” he says, both joc­u­lar and cryp­tic when asked about any chore­o­graphic chal­lenges he might have faced. The hall’s stage floor, for ex­am­ple, was de­signed for orches­tras, not dancers. “But in th­ese cases, I do have to be prac­ti­cal be­cause of ar­chi­tec­ture. I al­ways cre­ate a con­ti­nu­ity of move­ment that re­flects the cir­cum­stances of the space.”

In the case of “eye­S­pace,” which pre­miered at the Joyce Theater in New York last fall, Cun­ning­ham es­sen­tially cre­ated a vari­a­tion on one of his fa­vorite themes: vari­a­tion. The work has two chore­o­graphic ver­sions — one shorter than the other, both filled with bal­anc­ing and twist­ing move­ments — and four mu­si­cal ver­sions, in­clud­ing a wildly eclec­tic score by com­poser Mikel Rouse called “In­ter­na­tional Cloud At­las.” De­signed to be lis­tened to in iPod’s shuf­fle mode, Rouse’s mu­sic con­tains rock vo­cals, bossa nova rhythms, street noises and more.

When per­form­ing to this score (the shorter ver­sion), as it will at OCPAC, the com­pany brings along about a thou­sand iPods to lend to au­di­ence mem­bers, “so each per­son has their own ver­sion of the score,” says Rouse. “It’s the Cage and Cun­ning­ham aes­thetic on steroids.”

Like all com­posers who have col­lab­o­rated with Cun­ning­ham, Rouse com­posed “In­ter­na­tional Cloud At­las” with­out tak­ing the chore­og­ra­phy into ac­count.

“It al­lowed me to do things rhyth­mi­cally and lyri­cally that can be very hard to pull off when com­pos­ing for mod­ern dance,” he says.

“When you’re work­ing with Merce, you’re told the length of the dance and that’s it.”

Ad­di­tion­ally, Rouse, to­gether with the dance com­pany’s au­dio spe­cial­ist, Stephan Moore, will per­form a live ver­sion of the score dur­ing the per­for­mance and cre­ate even more op­tions for tak­ing in the whole.

“We’re chal­leng­ing the au­di­ence to have a pub­lic and private ex­pe­ri­ence at the same time,” says Rouse.

“Giv­ing some­one that much con­trol over the per­for­mance can be won­der­ful and free­ing or very re­stric­tive, de­pend­ing on the per­son.”

To this day, the Cage and Cun­ning­ham prin­ci­ple of sep­a­rat­ing the mu­sic from the dance can still di­vide au­di­ences. And when asked whether dancers new to the com­pany have dif­fi­culty learn­ing how not to dance to mu­sic, Swin­ston sighs with the fa­tigue of some­one who’s had to ex­plain the same idea over and over.

“Peo­ple have this ro­man­tic idea that ev­ery­thing has to go with mu­sic — and it doesn’t,” he says. “Cun­ning­ham dancers move to the rhythm of the steps. It’s sim­i­lar to the way peo­ple might watch TV with the sound turned off and play­ing the ra­dio or some­thing else.”

Like all of Cun­ning­ham’s chore­og­ra­phy from the early 1990s on­ward, “eye­S­pace” be­gan on the com­puter.

Us­ing the soft­ware now known as DanceForms, the chore­og­ra­pher con­tin­ues to em­ploy his long­time method of chance pro­ce­dures — de­ter­min­ing the or­der of move­ments by ran­dom means, such as the flip of a coin. But he can also “more or less en­ter a phrase of move­ment [into the com­puter] and see if it will work,” he says. “You can change the tempo and all the spa­tial as­pects be­fore you take it to the dancers.”

Though now largely con­fined to a wheel­chair, Cun­ning­ham still teaches the ad­vanced tech­nique class at his stu­dio twice a week, in ad­di­tion to con­stantly work­ing on new chore­og­ra­phy. He also draws ev­ery day, mostly sketches of an­i­mals, “as a way of putting my mind on some­thing else.”

“I can’t move much, but I can still twid­dle my feet,” he says. “To my dancers, I will at­tempt to show what­ever I can and ex­plain the rest. I don’t en­joy talk­ing, but I do it.”

“He’ll sit on a stool in front of the barre, and he still has this in­ten­sity that makes the dancers move,” says Swin­ston. “He’s much gen­tler now as an older man, but he still chal­lenges you like no one else does. He’s like a ma­gi­cian, the way he can keep cre­at­ing new ways of do­ing.”

Th­ese “end­less pos­si­bil­i­ties” of move­ment are pre­cisely why Cun­ning­ham per­sisted with his work in those early days of strug­gle and why he also has never be­lieved in re­tire­ment.

“I strongly be­lieve that any kind of work is the only thing that keeps one go­ing,” he says.

“I al­ways felt strongly about the ideas that I was deal­ing with, that they had a real value.”

Anna Finke Merce Cun­ning­ham Dance Com­pany

LET’S TRY

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A seg­ment of “eye­S­pace” is per­formed by, from left, Cedric An­drieux, Jonah Bokaer, Bran­don Coll­wes. The com­pany is visit­ing Orange County.

Linda A. Cicero Stan­ford News Ser­vice

AT 88: Merce Cun­ning­ham says work “keeps one go­ing.”

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