A moving tribute

Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s farewell tour visits Bard this weekend

by Lynn Woods
September 08, 2011 12:48 PM | 0 0 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Merce Cunningham, 1975, by Jack Mitchell
Merce Cunningham, 1975, by Jack Mitchell
For 65 years, Merce Cunningham was a formidable force in the American avant-garde, collaborating with his life partner John Cage in creating dance compositions drained of narrative that used chance, sometimes through the throwing of the I Ching, and combined everyday movements with ballet, jazz and modern dance. The movements onstage didn’t necessarily sync with Cage’s spare sound pieces, causing an additional fracture that further unfastened the dance from convention and opened up the possibilities for new types of connections and expression. In later years, ensuring that his dances would never become clichés of his initial experimental style, Cunningham was also a pioneer in deploying new technologies – using the computer program DanceForms, for example, as a tool for his choreography.

Active as an artist and mentor (the list of dancers who trained with him reads like a roster of contemporary dance companies, including Paul Taylor, Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs and Karole Armitage) until his death in 2009, Cunningham directed that his company be disbanded in January 2012. Embarked on its final worldwide Legacy Tour, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company is coming to Bard College on September 9, 10 and 11, giving local dance aficionados one last chance to see the master’s work live onstage. It’ll be performing three pieces: Suite for Five, which features music by John Cage and bold-colored leotards designed by Robert Rauschenberg; Antic Meet, which also has music by Cage and a set designed by Rauschenberg; and Sounddance, with music by David Tudor and décor by Mark Lancaster.

Suite for Five, which dates from 1956 to 1958, features two solos remarkable for their slow, sustained movements as well as a trio, duet and quintet exuding tranquility and a sculptural clarity. Antic Meet, dating from 1958, is structured like a series of vaudeville acts, and the dancers serve as a kind of moving canvas for Rauschenberg, who put them in flamboyant fur coats, parachute dresses and, in one instance, a chair strapped to a back. Sounddance is a later work – it dates from 1975 – and its vigorous complexity was inspired by Cunningham’s stint working with the Ballet of the Paris Opera. The title is derived from a passage in Finnegans Wake: a garbled version of Genesis I, starting with “in the buginning is the woid, in the muddle is the sound-dance…” – and indeed, a cycle suggesting birth and mortality is evoked by the dancers’ emergence from a tentlike structure and their return and disappearance into its curtained folds.

The two performances on September 9 and 10 start at 8 p.m.; the September 11 Sunday matinee starts at 2 p.m. Tickets cost $25, $35, $45 and $55; for more information call the box office at (845) 758-7900 or visit For more information about Cunningham, visit

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