Farewell tour celebrates enduring vision

  • Article by: CAROLINE PALMER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 5, 2011 - 6:15 PM

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company is a select group that worked with the master choreographer. Their work is exquisite.

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Merce Cunningham Dance Company brings its farewell tour to Walker Art Center

Photo: Photo by Cliff DesPeaux,

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Merce Cunningham, who died at age 90 in 2009, was one of the most forward-thinking choreographers of his generation. For proof, look no further than his troupe's performance at Minneapolis' Walker Art Center this weekend. All of the works on the program feel current, even those that are several decades old.

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company is on a farewell tour before ceasing operations at year's end. The repertory will live on via licensing, but these shows are still bittersweet. The dancers are among a select group who worked with the artist himself. They have a particular -- even molecular -- understanding of Cunningham's technique, one that draws upon ballet at its base but is otherwise unique. In his dance form the limbs, torso, pelvis and head may be engaged in different or even contradictory actions, but the effect is a satisfying whole.

And yet this is not a sad moment. The 13 company members display a sense of buoyancy and ease as they showcase three selections from Cunningham's 150-plus works. It's a celebration of an enduring vision.

1998's "Pond Way," set to an ambient Brian Eno score, highlights the choreographer's interest in the interplay between the human and natural worlds. The piece has a clean and futuristic feel overall, but the movements themselves are often more organic, with an amphibian aspect to the sudden hops and jumps. A backdrop of Roy Lichtenstein's vast "Landscape With Boat" completes the serene environment.

"RainForest" (1968) stands out for many reasons, notably David Tudor's drill-like industrial score and Andy Warhol's décor. The "Silver Clouds" installation is several large mylar pillows. Their perpetual migration across the stage complements (and hinders) the dancers' movement. There is more direct interaction here than in "Pond Way" as well as more dramatic shifts in energy through whirling turns. It's as if Cunningham set out to discover just what provokes a body into motion.

Cunningham's playful side emerges in 1958's "Antic Meet" set to John Cage's equally mischievous "Concert for Piano and Orchestra" (performed live). The work sends up Cunningham's predecessors and contemporaries, including Martha Graham and Alwin Nikolais. Visual artist Robert Rauschenberg was also the choreographer's accomplice in this comic rebellion.

The wonderfully deadpan Rashaun Mitchell assumes Cunningham's famous central role, dancing blithely with a chair belted to his back and struggling with a four-armed, no-necked sweater. He is an instigator, poking fun at the insular world he inhabits. This is as close to slapstick humor as modern dance gets, and it continues to delight some 50 years later.

Caroline Palmer writes about dance.

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  • Working with Merce

    Saturday November 5, 2011

    Captivating to some and confounding to others, Merce Cunningham's dance pushed boundaries, even for his students and acolytes.

  • MERCE CUNNINGHAM DANCE COMPANY

    What: Legacy Tour

    When: 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday.

    Where: Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Av., Mpls.

    Tickets: $40-45, 612-375-7600 or www.walkerart.org

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