Inspiring at 89

Pub date November 12, 2008
SectionArts & CultureSectionDance

REVIEW After the Company’s opening night performance on Nov. 7, 89-year-old Merce Cunningham took to the Zellerbach Hall stage in a wheelchair. With his impish smile still intact but otherwise looking frail, he spread his hands. That’s when I started to cry for the second time that week. It’s what happens when history unfolds before your eyes.

Cunningham is the single most important 20th century choreographer still alive — and still working. The opening concert of his company’s two-week residence showed why: imagination, buoyancy, and impeccable craft. Nowhere was this more evident than in the breathtakingly beautiful Suite for Five (1953-58), the company’s first group piece — its male roles originally realized by Cunningham himself and our own blithe spirit, Remy Charlip. As performed by Julie Cunningham, Holley Farmer, Daniel Madoff, Rashaun Mitchell, and Marcie Munnerlyn, the work was crystalline in its transparent clarity. Every unadorned gesture, every gazelle leap, and every pivoting turn filled the stage with radical purity. One can only fantasize about what the original audiences must have thought at a time when Martha Graham and Jose Limon still dominated concepts of modern dance. Only Balanchine could rival Cunningham.

In this context the other two pieces, eyeSpace (2006) and BIPED (1999), with many more resources and 40 years of dance-thinking behind them, seemed almost tame. EyeSpace was made with the iPod generation in mind. You could either bring your own, or borrow one in Zellerbach’s lobby. Mikel Rouse’s score was made of environmental sounds — mostly urban but also from nature — and you superimposed the sounds you could find at the moment. Cunningham’s urgent choreography had the quality of bouncing water drops on a hot griddle. A dozen performers popped off the floor, in and out of the wings, into unisons, trios, and off-kilter solos in this good if not spectacular late Cunningham.

The astounding BIPED juxtaposed the 13 company members with three "virtual" dancers, created with Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser’s motion-capture technology. Projected onto a scrim of ever-changing light beams, the work suggested a voluminous universe whose spatial dimensions expanded and contracted, dwarfing or putting into relief the glorious performers. In this third viewing, BIPED still felt too long, and Gavin Bryars’ textured score didn’t help. For the metaphorically inclined, however, the piece’s pulsating sense of presence suggests nothing less than a physical universe made up of light and energy.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company Fri/14–Sat/15, 8 p.m., $26–$48. Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley, Berk. (510) 642-9988,