Merce Cunningham Legacy Tour Review — A Graceful Farewell

In the words of premier dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, “Merce Cunningham reinvented dance and then waited for the audience.” The audiences did come, steadily increasing over the remarkable 58-year run of Cunningham’s namesake company. Now audiences are turning out from Paris to Chicago to applaud the body of Cunningham’s work in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s Legacy Tour, a wrap-up of his work that Cunningham envisioned before his death in 2009. Remarkably, Cunningham’s distinctive method and choreography remain as fresh today as they were considered avant-garde when Cunningham founded the company in 1953.


Merce Cuningham dancers (photo by Mark Seliger)

Cunningham’s work is distinguished by a high level of collaboration with composers and visual artists. The company commissioned numerous works from contemporary composers, particularly John Cage, who served as the company’s musical advisor from its inception until his death in 1992. World-class artists shaped the design of productions, with Robert Rauschenberg serving as resident designer from 1954 to 1964.


The artistic cross-pollination of Cunningham-Cage-Rauschenberg informs Antic Meet, first performed in 1958 but looking up-to-the-minute on Friday night on the stage of the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, which presented the program with The Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago. Choreographed in 10 movements, Antic Meet breaks away from the restraint of pieces choreographed by Cunningham’s contemporary, Martha Graham. The dancers, who don an ever-changing array of Rauschenberg’s frippery over black unitards, cavort with movements that are playful yet synchronized, movement interspersed with mime. A dancer produces a bouquet of flowers from his sleeve like a magician; women toss imaginary objects at one another and react to the virtual impact; a dancer carries a chair roped to his back like a wooden bustle. Music director Takehisa Kosugi led musicians performing Cage’s score.


In Quartet, from 1982, dancers in jewel-toned leotards (décor by Mark Lancaster) move organically to David Tudor’s Sextet for Seven, other worldly electronic music performed by Kosugi. In Friday’s final piece, Squaregame, from 1976, the company members twist, reverse and vibrate with tiny isometric movements — when they release these carefully controlled movements, it seems as if the dancers might float away. The mood is both playful and lyrical.


Saturday’s program will present a single work, Roaratorio, from 1983, named for its score by John Cage, Roaratorio, An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake.


Andrea Webber & Rashaun Mitchell in Antic Meet (photo by Yi-Chun Wu)

Each dancer embodies Cunningham’s high ideals and all deserve mention: Brandon Collwes, Dylan Crossman, Emma Desjardins, Jennifer Goggans, John Hinrichs, Daniel Madoff, Rashaun Mitchell, Marcie Munnerlyn, Krista Nelson, Silas Riener, Jamie Scott, Robert Swinston (directory of choreography), Melisa Toogood and Andrea Weber.


Bonnie Brooks, associate professor of dance at Columbia College, is traveling with the company to document its historic finish and introduced Friday’s program, reading from a proclamation from Chicago’s mayor and number one dance fan Rahm Emanuel declaring November 18 Merce Cunningham Day in Chicago. In a pre-performance talk Brooks said, “Without Merce, a whole new direction in dance might not have happened. Merce threw away the old rules of narrative and fitting steps to music,” sometimes tossing cards to decide how movements would be arranged. She concluded, “While it’s hard to say goodbye to this troupe, it’s incredibly easy to say thank you.”


Chicago is the 49th of 53 stops for the Legacy Tour, which will end in New York City on New Year’s Eve. After that, the company will disband but the work of preserving the Cunningham Technique and its unique choreography will shift to an innovative trust supported by an $8 million endowment.


Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s Legacy Tour

Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph Dr., Chicago

Friday & Saturday, November 18 & 19 at 8 p.m.

Tickets $25–$65 through The Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago (312-369-8330) or the Harris Theater box office (312-334-777)

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