The New York Times is reporting that American Dance pioneer Merce Cunningham has died. Cunningham brought his company back to Philadelphia last year.

March 2008

The return of Merce Cunningham Dance Company in the middle of Dance Celebration’s ’Innovators and Pioneers’ series is perfect placement. It is so remarkable in a work like Biped, premiering in Philadelphia, that Cunningham, at 89, continues to define his own dance universe.

Not to be outdone by hidef film effects, the current trend in dancearts Cunningham instead conjures a dance black hole on the Annenberg stage that we get sucked into.

Although somewhat dwarfed here from its full expansion on the BAM stage, the dance arena is nonetheless stunning. Cunningham’s sketchpad of dimensional skeletal danceforms he pioneered with ’motion capture’ computer imaging float in and out along with worm graphics, scribbles, and drafting bars.

His troupe of 13 bipeds, dressed in metallic acid burn organza danskins appear and vanish. This spatial reality frames Cunningham’s spectral choreographic progression. As avant garde as Cunningham remains a work like “BiPed” does not sidestep stellar modern technique delivered by these dancers.

“Biped’s” choreographic base is a study in tendu and relevé transitional foundations that bloom with dazzling arabesque variations and innovative body lines. There is a uniquely steeled suppleness in the backbends and formitable athletic prowess in Olympic jump sequences from static positions.

Not to be outdone by hi-def film effects, the current trend in dancearts the Cunningham instead conjures a dance black hole on the Annenberg stage that we get sucked into.A dancer vaults and is caught by four men by her limbs, without hand support on her torso. The dancer is lifted, falls low to the ground in a lift sequence that keeps evolving until it moves offstage. Such kinetic elements give any non-representational movement amplitude. Something for those who don’t like abstraction, to grab onto.

Asymmetrical group fragments are as cohesive as contrasting duets and unison work. As the motion capture projections fill out into more charcoal sketches, dancers put on sheer garments and flying into epileptic aerials, then they assemble in pairs. Whether suggesting evolution or deevolution, Cunningham is fascinatingly enigmatic.

The companion piece EyeSpace is accompanied by Mikel Rouse’s soundscape and ambient live music incorporating seepage from the collective Ipods, distributed to the audience like 3-d glasses, makes this a per performance happening. Onstage, a pastel construction paper galaxy with confetti funnels hover over the dancers in turquoise unitards.

Cunningham keeps returning to expressive and playful trios, one a quicksilver display of free leg battlement in alternate body positions. The finishing duet is synergistic between the dancers without any body contact and without the need to imply any emotional intimacy.

A concert from a choreographic master who may have to choreograph on computer more, but whose work is as exploratory and as polished as ever. Maestro Cunningham made a surprise appearance taking a bow from his wheelchair at the curtain and pierced his own parallel universe with a starburst.