While rehearsing a solo in The Lowest Form of Poetry recently, Justin Tornow was interrupted: "Get on with it!"
It wasn't one of the dancers in Tornow's Durham troupe, COMPANY, nor was it one of her musical collaborators in MW Duo. The voice that shot through UNC-Chapel Hill's atrium-like Kenan rehearsal hall in an eerie sonic spiral belonged to the great choreographer Merce Cunningham. The eerie part? He died in 2009.
"I was like, 'Oh, my God!'" Tornow says. "It was like I was being directed by someone." In a way, she was. Lee Weisert, a UNC music professor and half of MW Duo, had unleashed the utterance—taken from Cunningham's 1952 essay "Space, Time and Dance" (hear it on UbuWeb)—via electronic randomizer.
In rehearsals, the randomizer stands in for the laser photoresistors that will be used in this weekend's performances of an in-progress multimedia work called The Lowest Form of Poetry, enabling the dancers' movements to trigger random samples of Cunningham's words. Presented by UNC's Process Series, COMPANY's latest effort follows last year's The Value of Words, a collaboration with visual artist Heather Gordon.
Cunningham's voice looms large over modern dance. His formalist movement, his decoupling of dance and music, and his use of chance procedures—often with his partner, the composer John Cage—have been canonized and incorporated into dance pedagogy. Tornow learned Cunningham technique at UNC-Greensboro; her relationship with the Cunningham Trust in New York informs her own teaching.
It was there, on a research trip, that she learned about "Space, Time and Dance." More poetic treatise than prose essay, it probes modern dance with statements that range from explanatory ("The dance is an art in space and time") to judgmental ("Climax is for those who are swept away by New Year's Eve").
COMPANY and MW Duo last collaborated on 2014's The Weights. For Lowest Form, Weisert worked the Cunningham piece into an electronic score that escalates and unravels, while Matthew McClure, also of MW Duo and UNC's music department, "completes the triangle," as Weisert says, with lyrical saxophone improvisations.
During the thirty-minute work, dance and sound reciprocally structure each other, sometimes in counterintuitive ways. At one point, the dancers move particularly fast. Instead of creating "short sounds," Weisert piled Cunningham's sentences on top of one another.
"It becomes this crazy mess of a million Merce Cunninghams talking at once," he says. "I didn't anticipate it having that effect." Tornow and MW Duo share an investment in the unknown results of experimental methods.
"The things that always interested me about Cunningham are the things that are not on the surface," Tornow says. Lowest Form reveals glimmers of Cunningham's grounded balletic shapes—"little lovely moments of reference," as Tornow calls them, "to remind us all of what we're doing."
Other moments are not so easy to map. At one point, time suspends as the piece pivots from a group movement to a meditative solo by Emily Aiken. Tornow built the solo from her own improvisation to a song used in a work by North Carolina dance stalwart Jan Van Dyke. Van Dyke, who passed away last year after battling cancer, was Tornow's mentor at UNC-G and one of her entry points into Cunningham. The solo and a group phrase created from one of Van Dyke's chance scores are gentle gestures of tribute.
There's a relevant question Cunningham doesn't explicitly pose in his elegant monotone: How do artistic legacies intersect? COMPANY's repertoire, especially The Lowest Form of Poetry, prods at this inquiry to open up spaces for identification and interrogation. As Tornow prepares to present the piece at its current stage, she's curious about how it will unfold.
"What does it mean to reckon with your legacy as an artist?" Tornow says. "You're trying to do things that feel really true to you while also being really clear about where it's coming from."
As Cunningham would say—and, I suspect, Tornow would agree—"Get on with it!"
This article appeared in print with the headline "Get On With It."