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A reconstruction of a 1977 piece by the late, great Merce Cunningham 

In my first experiences with modern dance, 30 years ago, there was everyone else—and then there was Merce Cunningham. Though no shortage of dance experiments abounded in the '80s, inevitably the other choreographers I recall encountering would use dance as narrative—to achieve theater by other means.

But not Merce. Or so, at least, I thought at the time. By then, Cunningham's theatrical experiments of the '40s and '50s had ceded to works considerably more abstract, but no less intellectual. Theater by other means? No. Think architecture, instead. Or Abstract Expressionism, for that matter, with more than an occasional diversion into the world of nature—seemingly, at times, on a molecular level.

Jean Freebury, who danced with Merce's company from 1992 to 2003, and has taught his technique at the company's studios since 1996, is reconstructing

Inlets 2, a 1983 work based on a Cunningham residency in Seattle in 1977. At its New York premiere, critic Anna Kisselgoff praised the subtleties and stillness woven into Inlets 2's overtly nature-based imagery.

We recently spoke with Freebury at Duke's Lilly Library.

Independent: I know your history with the company goes back to the early 1990s. What was it about his work that made you seek him out?

Jean Freebury: I remember the first time I saw the company, live, in 1990. I was on spring break from the [University of North Carolina] School of the Arts. I went to City Center to see them. I was totally blown away; they had a kind of physicality that I really liked. I was 21, and at that age you're looking for movement you'd like to do, that you'd want to perform.

I hadn't seen very much of other kinds of dance besides ballet until I was 20; originally, there was zero modern dance in Alberta [Canada]. When I saw the company, I said I really have to try this; I have to figure out how to get here.

Tell me more about their physicality.

It was familiar and not familiar. It used a lot of technique I'd had already—Graham and ballet—but in a completely different way. But I'm also really attracted to rhythm, and Merce's work had incredible rhythm, and timing. And risk: There was a lot of risk. The way the dancers move, it was there. People think it's not risky but it really is.

Can you tell me more about using what you had learned, but in a fundamentally different way?

First of all, there was Merce's idea that there's no "front" in his choreography.

Yes, "front" is wherever the dancer happens to be facing, no matter where he or she is, at any point in the performance.

It had this way of freeing up the space. And though a lot of his technique was very much related to ballet, another difference was this: You're not presenting anything. You're not presenting movement. You're doing it. [...] You're not presenting something to an audience; you are dancing in space. I think that's kind of normal modern dance these days; but I hadn't seen a lot of that. His dancers were really just involved in movement in space. You could see them in a different way. They weren't characters. They weren't trying to be something or someone else.

I'll paraphrase a really great quote—I think it's from John Cage—that describes how I feel about watching Merce's work. Instead of looking at a chair on stage—or whatever objects or even dancers are there—you are looking at an environment with chairs or people within it.

His work invokes its own space, its own environment.

There's something that's really freeing about that when I watch the company dance. Merce always quoted from Einstein: "There's no fixed point in space." That's definitely in his work: There's no center; no fixed point. It's about space. Your eye is not directed: You can choose to look at what you want to look, but you're not being directed to look at something.

Using chance operations is how I think that came about; that idea that each thing happening in this space has its own weight and value, and that it's up to you, as an audience member, to choose what to look at.

Cunningham was famously reticent to use verbal descriptions about the interiors of his work.

No one will ever know his exact intentions, artistically. And it's fine. What's wonderful about that is that it gives you the freedom to experience it directly, yourself.

But having danced and taught the work to others, how would you describe Inlets 2?

It's difficult. I don't think it's one of Merce's most difficult pieces, but it is substantial. It is meditative; it's one of his nature pieces. It has a lot of circular patterns, and a lot of slow moments where other things come out. It's very fluid in the way it's choreographed; one thing goes right into another, some things join together, while others go off. Everyone has sort of their own pathway through the work.

What's it like performing it?

The level of concentration, the difficulty of it keeps you very much in the present moment. The fact that you're not dancing to music means you have to be really aware of the space and the people around you, because you're cueing off of their movement. [...] It's very quiet when you're performing it, and it's a little scary because there's not a lot of sound. [...] It's as if you were out somewhere really beautiful, early in the morning, all by yourself. I mean, there are other animals, other things around you, but you're all by yourself. It has that kind of tone for me. There's a quietness—and a pristine nature about it, too.

  • Jean Freebury is reconstructing Inlets 2, a 1983 work based on a Cunningham residency in Seattle in 1977.

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