Cunningham’s influence remains vital

KARLI CADELMembers of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company perform “Sounddance’’ as part of their Jacob’s Pillow program that honors the choreographer’s birthday. KARLI CADELMembers of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company perform “Sounddance’’ as part of their Jacob’s Pillow program that honors the choreographer’s birthday. (Karli Cadel)
By Janine Parker
Globe Correspondent / July 25, 2009

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BECKET - It’s so fitting that the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s performances at Jacob’s Pillow happen right smack in the middle of the festival’s schedule. One can imagine Cunningham sitting for a photograph as the patriarch of modern dance, surrounded by all the other younger choreographers and dancers who are appearing at the Pillow this summer. Whether or not they’ve worked for him, the majority of them have been influenced by the nonagenarian master.

Oh, the lessons we’ve learned and the lessons we keep trying to learn from the unfailingly unsentimental Cunningham. One slippery thesis is his longtime insistence that the elements of a traditional dance - the music, the costumes, the dancing itself - are separate entities that should be able to exist as such. So his composers and designers are given numbers - how long and how many dancers - and that’s it. The viewer is challenged to reconsider what musicality really means.

Well, one tenet of musicality is that it comes from within the dancer and manifests itself in the dancer’s ability to shape his or her movements fully into the time allotted - whatever the tempo, and whether that time is filled with melody, earsplittingly shriekish sounds, or silence. Despite Cunningham’s iconic presence as a great innovator of 20th-century modern dance, his diabolical movement requires a sturdy grounding in ballet technique, even if many of those sky-high battements and balances and pirouettes are capped by a flexed foot and turned-in leg. Technical virtuosity is a given, and there is no room for personal flourishes. Cunningham dancers must be iconoclastic in their approach to musicality and willing to sacrifice luxuriousness.

The Pillow program, which celebrates Cunningham’s 90th birthday, is a sampling that allows us to consider the spirit of his strange and wonderful oeuvre, his collaboration with other equally unapologetic artists, and his interest in the technological world. The 1993 “CRWDSPCR’’ (pronounced crowdspacer) is one of the first dances Cunningham made using the computer program Danceforms, which helps him map out his dancers’ patterns. One could call Cunningham’s stage action random or even chaotic, but a quick inventory of the various groupings indicates meticulous, almost obsessive phrases.

Though Cunningham is now confined to a wheelchair, he continues to collaborate with young musicians and keeps his finger on a youthful pulse. The 2006 “eyeSpace’’ even lends iPods to the audience; if they so choose, they can watch the dance while playing Mikel Rouse’s composition on shuffle mode, thus inviting us to be abettors in his ongoing game of musical chance. “eyeSpace’’ is like a documentary on the Cunningham dancer’s extraordinary groundedness; the opening quartet is one long crazy balance after another. Note the way the dancers flick their legs into arabesque, lean to a flat backed plane, just stay and stay . . . and then start moving their torsos to and fro.

While I acknowledge the craft of these pieces, it is with a head-scratching admiration; I can’t fully decide, moment to moment, if I’m enjoying what I’m watching. I do unabashedly adore the 1975 “Sounddance,’’ a glorious monster of a piece that begins with company assistant Robert Swinston in the original Cunningham role, swirling out of the golden draperies that curtain off the very upstage space. The older Swinston more than holds his own among those bright young things.

At the end of “Sounddance,’’ the dancers disappear, as they appeared, through the drapes, with Swinston last, backing away. He seems to protect the sanctity of the space while also reminding us that this art - dance - may as well be a dream, a figment of our imagination that exists only as long as it’s happening in front of us. Happy Birthday, Mr. Cunningham, and unreasonable as it may sound, long may you live.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM DANCE COMPANY At: Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, Wednesday (through tomorrow)

Tickets: $58. 413-243-0745,

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