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Cunningham premiere

10/09/07 7:55AM By Jay Craven
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(HOST) Commentator Jay Craven brought the Merce Cunningham Dance Company to Lyndon twenty two years ago - and he's glad to see that the legendary master still going strong today.

(CRAVEN) "If dance legend Merce Cunningham were an animal, which one would he be?" That's the question one of my Marlboro College students asked after watching the Cunningham's company's spellbinding performance last weekend at Dartmouth's Hopkins Center. Cunningham veteran Robert Swinton laughed and paused before giving an answer. "He's a dance animal," he said, "with a relentless, never-ending impulse to keep moving."

And so he is.  Mikhail Baryshnikov has said, "Merce Cunningham re-invented dance."  So it's no surprise that Baryshnikov traveled to Hanover to photograph
last Thursday's final dress rehearsal of "Crossover," the world premiere that Cunningham developed over the past year, commissioned by the Hopkins Center and London's Barbican Performance Space.

The New York Times was at Dartmouth, too.  And on the occasion of Cunningham's 88th birthday, Times dance writer Alastair Macauley wrote, "In recent years, he has routinely been described as the world's greatest choreographer.  This doesn't mean, though, that he is just the oldest choreographer who has been great in the past. The dances he has made this millennium suggest, amazingly, that no choreographer alive is more concerned with continuing to extend his range."

Still, Cunningham's choreography is "difficult for many audiences," continued Macauley. His work "still feels to me far more avant-garde than that of any other artist I know, and invaluably so. I've never seen a Cunningham dance that hasn't rewarded a second viewing." End quote.

Cunningham choreographs his dances in silence.  The score and set are added at the last minute.  As Robert Swinton describes these independent and interdependent elements - quote - "It's either the ultimate collaboration or no collaboration at all."

My 14 year-old son Jasper joined me for the Cunningham event.  He was mesmerized and insisted on staying for the post-show discussion.  Indeed, kids are frequently the best audiences for abstract work, though it's rarely made available to them.  But I was pleased that Jasper could respond to dances where nothing is fixed - and to movement that seems so much by chance, in present time and space as you experience it - without literal underpinnings but full of articulate multi-layered movement and inspired expression.

The Dartmouth-commissioned dance will tour for the next several years - and it serves as a reminder of the crucial role that financial support plays in making creation possible.  Bennington College provided similar support for Martha Graham, who discovered Merce Cunningham in 1939 and brought him to New York as a soloist in her company.  Within five years, he was making his own dances.

At 88 and using a wheelchair, Cunningham remains a force of nature but he rarely tours with his company.  So, when he joined his dancers for a curtain call at Dartmouth, it was a rare treat - and an emotional moment.  As important as Picasso, Chaplin, Eugene O'Neill, or Miles Davis are to their respective forms, Cunningham took the stage in an outpouring of the joy, generosity, and whimsy that continue to mark his ground-breaking work.

Filmmaker Jay Craven teaches at Marlboro College and directs Kingdom County Productions.
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