Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Legacy Tour, Seattle and Stanford, CA

Written by:
Joanna G. Harris
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MCDC: Best in the West

Merce Cunningham Dance Company Legacy Tour
Paramount Theater, Seattle: Oct. 27 and 29, 2011
Memorial Auditorium, Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif., Nov. 1, 2011

On its historic Legacy Tour, MCDC performed twice in Seattle, on Oct. 27 and 29 at the beautiful Paramount Theatre. The audience was ecstatic to have the company in the area where Merce was born (Centralia, Wash.) and where he studied with Bonnie Bird at the Cornish School.

The program on Oct. 27 included “Xover” (2007), “Biped” (1999) and the rarely seen “Quartet” (1982). Robert Swinston, director of choreography and company teacher, took the role Merce had in “Quartet”; 1982 was one of the last times the great dancer and choreographer was able to appear on stage since his crippling arthritis prevented further performing. The soloist remains upstage, guiding and directing the action while four dancers work around him. Other solo parts were by Emma Desjardins and John Hinrichs, both dancing brilliantly with soaring jumps and crumpled falls, responding to the energy from Swinston’s hand gestures. Marcie Munnerlyn and Jamie Scott acted as a twin chorus, joining and leaving the small group. “Quartet” is a poignant memory of Merce revived to perfection in this performance.

The evening opened with “Xover,” a work replete with intricate movement for couples. Outstanding was the long intricate duet for Daniel Madoff and Marcie Munnerlyn during which the “crossover” positions of hands, the balance points on the torso and legs, and slow contact, focus and relatedness was maintained. Other dancers provided similar duets of a shorter nature. The choreography is always amazing; dancers enter and leave, filling the stage with complex rhythmic footwork and spatial design. For this piece, the score was John Cage’s “Aria” paired with Cages “Fontana Mix.” “Aria” was elegantly sung by Aurora Josephson accompanied by John King, Takeshisa Kosugi and Jesse Stiles on various electronic devices.

“Biped” (1999) concluded the Oct. 27 program. This reviewer was privileged to attend its premiere in Berkeley at Zellerbach Hall. To my eyes, the Paramount Theatre was able to realize the “motion capture” images that are projected on stage with greater clarity, color and general realization. “Motion capture” was accomplished by Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser in collaboration with Merce Cunningham. It is a magical work. The dancers emerge from the upstage darkness into electronic lines, dots and other squiggles and from time to time, digital images of dancers much enlarged. In this environment the thirteen dancers do twenty-seven different phrases, from solo moments to large group ensemble work. The colorful shiny costumes are by Suzanne Gallo, a brilliant designer who is no longer with us. The movement material consists of the endlessly varied Cunningham vocabulary: locomotor patterns for feet and legs while the torso leans, twists and curves and the arms are held in asymmetrical shapes. There are always surprises: women are lifted and held up high. Jennifer Groggins takes center stage and holds it twists and balances. For this viewer, the rhythms and the dance daring defy description. Gavin Byers’ score entitled “BIPED” accompanied the dance; it was performed with haunting wonder by Loren Dempster, cello, John King, guitar and Takehisa Kosugi, violin and percussion.

On Nov. 1, the company traveled south to Stanford University for a short residency that included classes taught by former Cunningham Company member Carol Teitelebaum and lectures by New York Times critic Alastair Macauley. The now famous “Nearly Ninety 2,” a full evening’s work (see video excerpt, above), was performed. On the occasion of Merce’s 90th birthday, April 19, 2009, “Nearly Ninety” was given at BAM, in Brooklyn. This version omits some of the sound histrionics by Radiohead; the score is now by John Paul Jones and music director Takehisa Kasugi. There are multiple solos and several outstanding duets and trios as well as the complex ensemble work when all 13 dancers fill the stage. Andrea Weber tells us that Merce gave each soloist his or her special challenge: “This is for you,” he said, and Silas Riener, Raushaun Mitchell, Jamie Scott and Andrea Weber give great individuality to the unpredictable twists, turns, bends, and moments of speed as well as stillness that create the density of Cunningham pieces. Amazing!

Each performance of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company on its final Legacy Tour is a heartbreaking experience. Although other companies will inevitably perform these works, this group, who studied and trained with Merce, is unique. They are: Brandon Collwes, Dylan Crossman, Emma Desjardins, Jennifer Groggans, John Hinrichs, Daniel Madoff, Rashaun Mitchell, Marcie Munnerlyn, Krista Nelson, Silas Riener, Jamie Scott, Melissa Toogood and Andrea Weber. Bravo! Bravi! Bravissime!

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