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Craven: The Legacy Tour

07/11/11 5:55PM By Jay Craven
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Portrait by Todd R. Lockwood
(HOST) The Merce Cunningham Dance Company brought its final area performances to Dartmouth's Hopkins Center last weekend. The performance got filmmaker and Marlboro College teacher Jay Craven thinking about his own experience with the legendary choreographer's work.

(CRAVEN) Cunningham planned it this way - that after his death in 2009 at the age of 90 - the dancers he mentored would tour the world one last time, performing work from his remarkable 70-year career. It was an emotionally charged, beautifully performed, and historically resonant evening.

This final tour marks a fitting denouement for an artist who never looked back. He didn't have time - because Merce just kept surging forward at age 80 and beyond, with experiments in new technology, collaborations with the likes of Rauschenberg and Radiohead, and always fresh choreographic insight.

Cunningham's work could initially seem too abstract. When I first saw the company, in 1972, the dances seemed disconnected-especially to their music, which didn't seem like music at all. Indeed, Cunningham composer John Cage found sound fragments in nature and others that flowed in through window from the city street. It seemed like maybe this was a joke.  I expected something that conformed to what I already knew. Later, when I saw the company again I found in it something essential about movement itself.

I came to appreciate how Cage's sound snippets reflected Merce's own fascination with the spontaneous. And I accepted how his dances existed completely separate from his collaborators' music and intersected it only in unplanned ways. By choreographing in silence and not adding the composer's score until the final rehearsal, Cunningham altered dance rhythms and created pure movement freed from historic dependencies on music.

I remember one performance at The Flynn Theater where audience members were given an I-pod that played just one of a half-dozen musical scores and were each cued to different starting points. Perhaps none of us experienced exactly the same music for the dance we all watched together.

Choreography director Robert Swinston calls these independent, sometimes hostile, and often surprisingly compatible elements, "either the ultimate collaboration or no collaboration at all."

Dance scholar Robert Copeland writes in his 2004 book, Merce Cunningham that "no one revised ‘the fundamentals' (of dance) more fundamentally than Merce Cunningham." Despite his experimentation, Copeland notes, Cunningham "forged an unprecedented rapprochement between modern dance and ballet," which had been so firmly rejected by previous modern choreographers. Cunningham's technique drew unapologetically from ballet as he made "fresh connections between the dancer's head, back, pelvis, legs and feet." The result produced graceful movement that never stopped breaking new ground.

With this final legacy tour, Cunningham fulfilled his belief in dance's evanescence.  He wrote, "You have to love dancing to stick to it.  It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive."
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