Merce Cunningham Dance Company – The Legacy Tour

Merce Cunningham Dance Company in "Crises", Photographer: Briana Blasko

Merce Cunningham Dance Company in “Split Sides”, Photographer: Tony Dougherty

Mershon Auditorium
Wexner Center for the Arts
Ohio State University
Columbus, OH
February 12, 2010

By  Steve Sucato

There are farewell performances when an artist retires from the stage and wants to say goodbye to the stage and there are those when the audience is the one saying goodbye to an artist no longer living, but whose work has touched them in some meaningful way. In the case of Merce Cunningham and his Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s The Legacy Tour, which kicked off in Columbus at Ohio State University’s Wexner Center for the Arts, the farewells were a bit of both.

On the one hand, Cunningham’s 57- year-old company began its 2-year journey into the history books by bidding the first of its many farewells to audiences and on the other hand, a packed Mershon Auditorium got to say goodbye to the late icon who passed away last July and his company in the best way possible by taking in two of Cunningham’s quintessential dance works.

The program began with a revival of Cunningham’s 1960 work “Crises”. Two dancers, a female costumed in yellow and a male in red, began a series of somewhat erratic modern dance movements to composer Conlon Nancarrow’s cacophonous music for the work. Nancarrow’s music matched Cunningham’s simplistic looking choreography that was layered bit by bit onto the stage as three more of the company’s dancers joined the initial pair.

Costumed in artist Robert Rauschenberg’s brightly colored red, yellow and orange unitards, the dancers shuffled, ran, and galloped about the stage in the straight-armed movement style Cunningham is known for.

Cunningham’s choreography for the work vacillated between playful and precise. Dancers dropped to the stage floor and wriggled their way into the wings while others paused to balance on one leg in ballet-like poses. Straight legs and pointed feet shot into the air and dancer’s torsos drifted into off-center balancing poses with others looking as if performing tai chi exercises.

Particularly impressive in “Crises” were the aptly-named Melissa Toogood as well as dancers Rashaun Mitchell and Julie Cunningham. Liverpool, England-native Cunningham’s (no relation to Merce) long limbs and lanky body showed well the choreographer’s penchant for balance and line in the work, while Toogood and Mitchell nicely captured the work’s physical attack and whimsy.

Fast forwarding 43-years, the other work on the program, 2003’s “Split Sides” made clear that Cunningham’s experimental nature when it comes to dance choreography and music, had remained the same after four decades. “Split Sides” however, showed that in those four decades Cunningham developed a higher level of sophistication and refinement in his choreography.

The work began with a prelude of sorts that came in the form of a series of dice rolls by one of the dancers to determine several key factors regarding the presentation of the work. The dice rolls determined from an A or B choice the costumes the dancers would wear, the work’s scenic decor and the orders of music and choreography.

As the company’s dancers looked on and the audience got a close up view of each dice roll as it was projected on a large screen, it was determined the dancers would begin the work in James Halls’ black & white costumes backed by Catherine Yass’ set decor and dance Cunningham’s B-set of movement phrases to the music of alternative band Radiohead.

Although Cunningham partially sketched out his choreographic ideas for “Split Sides” using the choreography computer program DanceForms, his movement vocabulary for “Split Sides” bore many similarities to the much older “Crises”. In “Split Sides” however, the movement was more aggressively paced, punchier and the choreography denser.

Riffs of rapid-fire movement faded into slower passages as the work’s eclectic group of 15-dancers dancers populated the stage with numerous tidbits of engaging movement phrases. The work was like peering at busy town square where a multitude of individual stories were being told simultaneously in movement, each in its own way vying for the viewer’s attention.

Within the work’s first half Cunningham built-in nods to Martha Graham, Paul Taylor and others.

Also of note was a solo by dancer Silas Riener who strung together a series of tricky hopping and balancing steps.

By the time the work settled into the lullaby-like music of Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Ros for its second half, one was already mesmerized by the deceptive ease the dancers moved through Cunningham’s choreography and barely noticed the changes in the set design and dancers costumes.

While Cunningham’s movement palette for his A-set of choreography did not vary much from the B-set it didn’t seem to matter “Split Sides,” as well as “Crises” were brilliant examples of Cunningham at his accessible best. The company performed the works with dedication and heart garnering a standing ovation and the program proved a fitting first goodbye to the modern dance master and his namesake company.

Copyright Steve Sucato