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It is no exaggeration to say that this is the most important cultural event of the season. You may never have heard of Merce Cunningham, but if you've seen a modern dance made in the last 60 years, you've felt his influence.

The Merce Cunningham farewell tour stops in North Carolina 

Merce Cunningham, seen supervising his dancers

Photo by Mark Seliger

Merce Cunningham, seen supervising his dancers

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company will be at the Durham Performing Arts Center this Friday and Saturday.

It is no exaggeration to say that this is the most important cultural event of the season. You may never have heard of Merce Cunningham, but if you've seen a modern dance made in the last 60 years, you've felt his influence.

Cunningham was a seismic force who rearranged the terrain of modern dance in much the same way that Jackson Pollock upended painting. The rest of the 20th century was different after Pollock took the picturing out of painting, and after Cunningham asserted the separateness of dance from music occurring in the same time and place. Both of these artists, along with others of the period, notably composer and musician John Cage, were several light-years ahead of most of us in divining the pulse of the times—which they knew to beat in a random, chaotic, dysfunctional manner as it hammered out a new kind of beauty made from ordered disorder.

Seattle ballet and opera critic Rosie Gaynor had a hard time finding anything to appreciate about Merce Cunningham. She waited almost too long before letting curiosity get the better of conditioning. This is what she said then: "Find Merce, and I'll see things I haven't seen before." (And she did.)

Per instructions left by Cunningham before his death in 2009, at the age of 90, the company is on its farewell tour before it ceases to exist in December 2011. Demand was high for booking MCDC on its farewell tour, and the fact that North Carolina—and Durham in particular—snagged an engagement is a testament to the vision of Duke Performances director Aaron Greenwald, whose contacts and growing reputation as a presenter gave him the muscle to get the only North Carolina date on the Legacy Tour.

Greenwald says that although many artists' work doesn't get stronger as they age, "Merce was totally engaged and curious the whole time."

He was, say Greenwald and a host of others in the dance world, "essential" to modern dance.

The company often performed at the American Dance Festival over the years, and this two-night stand at DPAC will be its last engagement in North Carolina.

You might say the Merce Cunningham Dance Company saved a dance for them what brung 'em, because the original incarnation of MCDC sprang to life 58 years ago in the strange and wonderful arts incubator at Black Mountain College, which operated outside of Asheville from 1933–1957.

Cunningham had been attending the Summer Institutes at the radical college for several years; he was already a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company and had begun to make his own dances, including the memorable one in 1948 when the group put on an obscure opera by Erik Satie. Cage had the score and dredged up a copy of the libretto illustrated by Georges Braque (!) from the New York Public Library, and the score was then translated by Black Mountain writer M.C. Richards (later much adored for her book Centering). The cast, which included both Cunningham and Buckminster Fuller, was directed by the young Arthur Penn, who would later achieve lasting renown for directing Bonnie and Clyde.

In his book on the Black Mountain experience, Martin Duberman quotes Penn on Cunningham's stage presence. He "really existed up there—in a way that very few people I'd ever seen had."

Cunningham was a young man at Black Mountain; now he is a recently deceased master. In the intervening years, he was the very model of protean creativity in the most ephemeral of art forms. But now he's history, and on Dec. 31, 2011, his company will pass into that other realm, too. This is a last-chance dance.

As the croupier says at the roulette table, "Les joués sont fait. Il n'y rien plus." The plays are made. There will be no more. The croupier has left the building, and his sleek confederates will soon disperse, their adrenaline-soaked winnings gaining them entrance to the exclusive club of former Cunningham dancers.

But this allusion to gambling goes further: Although his choreography was splendidly exact and specific, fully worked-out, Cunningham famously played with the possibilities of random chance in his dance making. In some works, he literally rolled the dice to determine which stage elements would play together.

Forever acting out the interplay of self-determination and fate, Cunningham dancers had to be, quite literally, ready for anything, ready for life's unsuspected combinations, ready to dance Cunningham's designs with an exquisite formality—without knowing what the music would be, what the set would look like, how the light would touch them. Split Sides, a late example of this technique, was performed in Chapel Hill in 2008 when Carolina Performing Arts brought the company to Memorial Hall. Cunningham, then 89, came onstage. (He danced in every company performance until he hit 70; after that he made brief, antic appearances.) It seemed at the time he was going to live forever.

But soon after, he was preparing to die, and, not wanting to leave the afterlife of his work to chance, he devised an admirable plan to ensure its presentation for a realistic amount of time. After his death, his dance company would continue to perform a "legacy tour" for a finite period, at the end of which it, and its guiding foundation, would come to a full stop. There would be none of the difficulties or dilutions that have come to other one-choreographer companies (think of the Martha Graham company).

Instead, a new Cunningham Trust will take over. It will hold clear title to all of Cunningham's dances and will license them for production by other companies. Initially, dancers trained by Cunningham will teach the work to these non-Cunningham dancers (as the Balanchine Trust does with the ballets of George Balanchine).

Future companies reproducing a Cunningham work will also be aided by "dance capsules" put together by MCDC's archivist, David Vaughan. According to Vaughan, each dance capsule will contain "all the material that would be necessary to reproduce a Merce Cunningham work" Included in digitized form will be Cunningham's own choreographic drawings and notes, the lighting plot, the music, any available images of the movement and, if the work has already been reconstructed, that director's notes, comments and reflections. Vaughan's dance capsules will make it possible for Cunningham's dances to live, even after all the dancers who knew them have gone. In fact, they are already in use.

"During this legacy tour," says Vaughan, "we are reconstructing works already, works that this company hadn't done before."

Unlike those dancers who have come and necessarily gone as time mercilessly eroded their animal grace, Vaughan was with the company nearly from the beginning and will see it to the very end. He was already Cunningham's student when his teacher was finally able to open his own studio in 1959, six years after beginning his company in that heady summer of 1953 in Black Mountain. (Paul Taylor, who subsequently came to embody the opposite end of the modern dance spectrum, was one of Cunningham's first group of dancers.)

Cunningham then hired Vaughan as studio secretary, and he took it upon himself to collect and save all material related to the dances and the performances, turning himself into an archivist.

"The archives will come to an end when everything else does," he told me a little sadly.

The materials will be housed in the performing arts section of the New York Public Library. In the meantime, his decades of expertise (Vaughan has also written a book about Cunningham, which he is now updating) will be available free to all comers, in "History Matters," a part of the MCDC residency at Duke, on Thursday, Feb. 5 at 6:30 in Reynolds Theater. The company will perform Suite for Five, with music by Cunningham's long-term collaborator and partner, John Cage, and costumes designed by Robert Rauschenberg.

Afterward, Vaughan, with the company's executive director, Trevor Carlson, and director of choreography Robert Swintson, will give a presentation on Cunningham's work and how his themes are revealed in the dance just viewed. Taking this unusual opportunity to have Cunningham's work explained by those who know it best could switch your experience of the concert evening from bafflement to enjoyment.

Because, no doubt about it, appreciating Cunningham can be uphill work. For viewers longing for wholeness and harmony, it can be crazy-making to watch dancers not moving to the music. They are moving, beautiful bodies doing amazing things in space, but they are doing them independently of any musical impetus. The music just goes along side by side, doing its own thing. Maybe you struggle with the chance thing—you want the artist to have just decided already—you don't want to be reminded that everything is contingent on some cosmic dice roll. You might wish for more emotion, some flaring passion. Or you may not like the way your mind cannot construct a running narrative as you watch—that this work is truly nonverbal, for all its rationality and ideas sticking out and jabbing you like sharp pins.

The thing to remember is, you don't have to like it in order to appreciate it.

"Merce is interested in bodies, says Duke's Greenwald. "I don't think it's intellectual work, but you may think so when it makes you question everything."

Referring to Cunningham's motifs of will and fate, bodies and technology, music and dance, Greenwald notes, "He's really interested in intersections and in the beauty of the thing he's made."

Cunningham was an iconoclast, but also an aesthete, in the "art for art's sake" pattern of his earliest youth. In a National Endowment for the Arts podcast after his death, dance historian Suzanne Carbonneau told a wonderful story about nervously interviewing Cunningham after a performance.

"I asked him to tell me about the structures of the work we had just seen," Carbonneau reported. "And his face lit up and he burst into a smile at the idea that somebody wanted to talk to him about structures, because it's the thing he cared most about."

Despite the ADF's reputation for presenting the most important modern dance, the company has not performed at the American Dance Festival in Durham for 10 years—Cunningham's former dancer Taylor has been the significant choreographer in the upper age bracket to be presented during the last decade. But ADF commissioned eight works from MCDC in earlier years, and one of the dances on the program this weekend, Biped, was an ADF commission that premiered there in 1999.

ADF co-director Jodee Nimerichter says of this weekend's concerts, "This is a big deal. Not to be missed. I know that [Cunningham's] legacy will continue on, but it will be different."

You could see what Nimerichter meant by "different" last summer when ADF had a Cunningham dancer in residence to teach Inlets 2 to students in the ADF school. Dance capsules or no dance capsules, that is the main way dance is passed down—person to person. A few weeks of rehearsal does not a Cunningham dancer make, but it is a start.

"As much as they will work with us and allow things to happen, we want to carry on Merce's work," says Nimerichter.

"The whole thing is going to be difficult when it comes to the point," says Vaughan.

"There will be this terrible moment when we realize it is the end."

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