Choreographer Merce Cunningham is big in France.
While the American modern dance icon, now being celebrated in a massive Walker Art Center exhibition, was still alive, the company he founded in 1954 often booked more dates in Europe than in the U.S. After the choreographer’s death in 2009, the troupe went on a two-year Legacy tour before disbanding.
Thus far, no American company has stepped up and embraced performing his works regularly. That’s why, when the Walker Art Center and Northrop auditorium looked for a dance company to commemorate Cunningham, they turned to France.
CCN-Ballet de Lorraine solidly performed two works by the modern master Thursday night at Northrop, as well as an entertaining but overly weird contemporary piece that clearly showed Cunningham’s influence. The company is on its first U.S. tour.
Not a bad gig to get courtesy of a Minneapolis art museum. Merci, Minnesota, the dancers should be saying. And thank you, France, for preserving Cunningham’s legacy.
The twisted gold velour curtain from “Sounddance” is one of the largest pieces featured in the Walker exhibit. It was so, so good to see a replica of Mark Lancaster’s 1975 twisted tapestry onstage at Northrop. The Ballet de Lorraine also revived “Fabrications,” which was commissioned by the Walker and premiered at Northrop in 1987.
The program opened, however, with a new piece for the company’s women by Cecilia Bengolea and Francois Chaignaud. “Devoted” is a rather wacky mash-up of Philip Glass music, Irish step dancing and chaînés turns. The French word for “chains,” these turns are usually performed on a diagonal, and require dancers to travel across the floor on their toes moving sideways, flipping with each step. The gimmick here was for the dancers’ arm positions to vary each time they, too, took a spin onstage. Some were stunning, others cheeky, like waiters balancing plates.
But for added weirdness, the lines often ended with toe stomps or forward high kicks lifted from Irish dance (all the costumes were green, with bows). Glass’ loud, electronic choral music didn’t match well with the ballet or Celtic motifs, but that was more or less the point.
As the Walker exhibit makes clear, Cunningham’s musical choices were rather famously based on chance. His former music director David Tudor used to create live mixes for “Fabrications.” Ballet de Lorraine’s decision to add a few contemporary pop tunes (such as the 2011 earworm “Keep Your Head Up”) to the staticky, channel-surfing amalgam helped keep the piece feeling like it was created in a studio last week.
In fact, excerpts from “Fabrications” were performed at the Walker last week, when four of Cunningham’s last dancers reunited during the “Common Time” grand opening. (Two more presentations are planned in March and April.) “Fabrications” is among Cunningham’s most poignant works, with strong connections for the couples, and even a moment that finds a woman reclining and a man resting a hand on her knee.
Melissa Toogood and Dylan Crossman performed that sequence last week. But seeing the full work onstage and in costume was more powerful. Though not classical ballerinas, these dancers brought a lightness to Cunningham’s work, and exceptional partnering skills. “Sounddance” is full of petite allegro footwork, lifts and jumps.
I had the privilege of seeing one of the final “Sounddance” performances during the company’s Legacy tour. The dancers spring through the curtain one by one, and exit the same way, but in a frenzy. When the final French dancer made his exit Thursday at Northrop, he jumped far higher than I ever saw a Cunningham dancer get. I gasped, and that’s not a criticism of either troupe.
Like banners on Bastille Day, may this French company long fly the flag for Cunningham.