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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 16 MARCH 2012 — Watching the last performance of the final programme of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Paris in December was not unlike witnessing the second death of Cunningham himself, one of the giants of 20th century modern dance, whose first appearance at the Theatre de la Ville dates back to 1972. It marked the end of an epoch.

Before his death at the age of 90 two years ago, the avant-garde American choreographer stipulated that he wished audiences around the world to see his works one more time, interpreted by the dancers he himself had trained, before the troupe was permanently disbanded. Subsequently, after this ultimate performance at the Theatre de la Ville, the dancers would continue to receive a year’s salary prior to either joining another company or turning towards teaching. The senior members of the company plan to promote the Merce Cunningham Dance Foundation, created to preserve his works.

Beginning at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Colombus, Ohio, the company visited over forty cities, culminating in Paris with a cross-section of works created between 1968 and 1999.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company: Biped
Photo: Tony Dougherty

The last piece presented in the French capital was Biped, a 1999 work accompanied by an excellent score composed by Gavin Byars and with effective, metallic costumes which reflected light designed by Suzanne Gallo. It incorporated choreography devised on a computer, Cunningham being the first major choreographer to create sequences on screen before rehearsing them with his dancers, and with a decor using spectacular computer-generated imagery. Even the floor was illuminated in randomly moving squares of light. Lasting forty-five minutes, it is possibly the most outstanding work of Cunningham’s later years and one which appeals to most audiences. It deservedly received a huge ovation, considerably more than the naturalistic Rainforest, the second piece presented which had been acclaimed at its creation in 1968.

Rainforest, with an evocative background score of David Tudor’s electronic sound, and with Andy Warhol’s large, helium-filled silver pillows bobbing around in the air entertaining the audience, subtly evokes the flora and fauna around us. It was amusing to see again, but the innovative impact of such pieces which marked dance over forty years ago has faded. There were no smiles but just grim faces on the dancers who, more than ever, seemed pawns in a game of chess.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company: Suite
Photo: Tony Dougherty

Moreover, it followed the opening work, the 1980 Duets, an uneventful piece which was both lifeless and dispirited in both choreography and interpretation, a half-hearted game of mirrors despite being set to a score by John Cage. It was no wonder people would walk out of Cunningham’s creations if pieces were regularly interpreted like this. The dancers seemed to be warming up, improvising, but lacked both energy and incentive, burying Cunningham a second time instead of rejoicing in the fact that he lives on through his work.

Much of Cunningham’s work, where artistic decisions were frequently made by the toss of a coin, was difficult to appreciate. Constantly inventing, incessantly searching and concerned with balance within off-balanced movements while ignoring all emotion, musicality or expressivity, Cunningham’s dancers were often seen as mechanical robots, particularly after he began working on a computer. Music and dance rarely met until the first night of a performance, and consequently one either adored or detested his work. It was no secret that choreography for Cunningham was often the result of chance, the chance in Paris being that it was with the whole company launching into the phenomenal Biped,  that this "astonishing adventure", to quote Cunningham himself, came finally to a halt amid loud cheering from an appreciative audience. 

Merce Cunningham Dance Company Website

Title image: Merce Cunningham
Photo: Mark Seliger
Photo courtesy of Merce Cunningham Dance Company

Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.

Related Culturekiosque Archives

Merce Cunningham: 1919 - 2009

Merce Cunningham Dance Company Celebrates Fiftieth Anniversary

John Cage at 100

Please click here for Patricia Boccadoro's archive of interviews with international choreographers and dance stars.

Please click here for Patricia Boccadoro's archive of dance reviews of performances by troupes and companies from all over the world.

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