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Rita Kohn
Performance Reviews
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
United States
Urbana, IL

Merce Cunningham Dance Company's Legacy Tour program always in the creative moment

by Rita Kohn
November 21, 2011
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
500 S Goodwin Ave.
Urbana, IL 61801
(217) 333-6280
This review was originally published in NUVO Newsweekly, Indianapolis, IN.

Rita Kohn is a member of the Board of the Dance Critics Association.
Merce Cunningham, John Cage and Krannert Center at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champagne connect across several generations, made evident by the audience age range at the November 15 concert. Conversation centered on recalling, "the last time the company was at Krannert, …" Bridget Lee-Calfas, Krannert's public information director, cites appearances of the MCDC in 1985, 2000, 2003, 2007 and 2009.

Patricia Knowles, in her history of dance at Illinois http://dance.uiuc.edu/about-us/history/patricia-knowles-history,
Writes: "In 1959, [Margaret] Erlanger [director of the UI dance program] invited Merce Cunningham as the first "dancer-in-residence" to teach, restage his work, perform and present lecture-demonstration programs open to the entire university."
This also marked the "first time in the history of dance in higher education that students performed professional repertory." Collage, a two-part work that included a solo for Cunningham, was performed as part of the University's Festival of Contemporary Arts.

In 2001, Cunningham performed in "Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce, Erik Satie: An Alphabet an adaptation of a John Cage radio play from 1982." By 2001, Cage's relationship with the University of Illinois also had spanned half a century, being first invited in 1952 to present at the Festival of Contemporary Arts.

Particularly poignant on this "Legacy Tour" evening was the participation of MCDC archivist David Vaughan at a pre-concert "Armchair Conversation" with Renée Wadleigh, University of Illinois professor of dance. Vaughan, who was part of that 2001 event, described his long relationship with Cunningham, first as a student in 1950 and 1959, then as a dancer and company manager, which was the start of "organizing" print materials connected with the company, that ultimately led to Vaughan being named archivist, a first for a dance company.

When asked to articulate the essence of audience enjoyment of works by Cunningham, Vaughan advised "look at it, don't try to figure it out. [For Cunningham] dance is that moment in space and time. Leave your expectations at the door," advised Vaughan.

Audiences at the cusp of the Cage/Cunningham collaboration in the 1950s and 1960s walked out, but at Krannert Center on November 15, 2011, the 650 seats in Colwell Playhouse were totally occupied and everyone stayed –and stayed—and stayed. The dancers were visibly moved by the sustaining ovation at the close.

The evening opened with "Duets", first performed in 1980 at New York's City Center Theater and restaged in 2010 by Robert Swinston. ("Duets" which has been licensed to other companies, was performed as part of American Ballet Theatre's 2011 season, November 8-13, simultaneously with the Legacy tour.) Six couples, in a seeming happenstance of clothing and harlequin-like color variations appear, disappear and re-appear to John Cage's Improvisation III (Peadar and Mel Mercier, percussion players). Musicians this evening were David Behrman, Takehisa Kosugi and Jesse Stiles. Within Mark Lancaster's décor, and his lighting with Christine Shallenberg, dancers are moving parallel to each other, in a free-to-be relationship across cultures and ages. Each pair shares a fleeting slice of life intimacy (or lack thereof) and moves on; yet a specific incident might strike a chord because "that's me when…" and is internalized and remembered days afterward.

Cunningham, an adroit observer of life all around him, had a penchant for isolating, examining and dimensional-izing those "slices" as rotating aspects of the captured instant – past, present, future flowing and fusing. "Pond Way" (1998; restaged 2010 by Robert Swinston) to Brian Eno's New Ikebukuro (for three CD players) comes alive in the wake of Roy Lichtenstein's Landscape with Boat. Floating and drifting, diving and lifting, rippling and shimmering, 13 dancers peel off and add on to become a myriad of activity in Suzanne Gallo's billowing costumes and David Covey's undulating lighting. In a constant flux of ever-changing tempos, the piece is unending, even when the curtain drops and it is time for intermission.

"Rainforest" (1968, 2011 reconstruction and staging by Robert Swinston with the assistance of Jennifer Goggans) is described as, "swathed in birdcalls and Andy Warhol's silvery cloud installation, [and] inhabited by gentle creatures." Six dancers in Suzanne Gallo's "roughed up" body leotards thread their bodies alongside each other and through Andy Warhol's Silver Clouds and David Corey's lighting with its glistening effects. David Behrman and Tkehisa Kosugi are the musicians for David Tudor's Rainforest.

Cunningham's signature "the motion expressing emotion" was poignant in all three pieces created across a 30-year span. Each dancer contributed something essential and unique to each piece with his/her hands. Just short of mesmerizing, this physicality provides the aha-moment in comprehending why Cunningham is ever-fresh. His dancers do not "seem to be making it up." Rather, as they proceed through space with amazing swiftness and lightness they are inventing—reacting and motivating as required, and becoming at-one with all the technical aspects within and outside themselves. They believe in this Cunningham world. Unity entrances.

We leave knowing we have been part of an epochal event. We knew that unless we made our way until December 31 to another venue hosting The Legacy tour, this was the last time we were experiencing the Merce Cunningham Dance Theatre. Yet there is no sadness. "The Legacy Plan" invites us to rejoice the career transitions under way for the dancers personally trained by Cunningham and for the musicians, designers and staff chosen by Cunningham. With select licensing and "the creation of digital Dance Capsules," it is anticipated Cunningham's work will be preserved and brought to life for future generations.

The dancers include: Brandon Collwes, Dylan Crossman, Emma Desjardins, Jennifer Goggans, John Hinrichs, Daniel Madoff, Rashaun Mitchell, Marcie Munnerlyn, Krista Nelson, Silas Riener, Jamie Scott, Robert Swinston, Melissa Toogood and Andrea Weber.

The program also included an opportunity for audience members to participate in a "Dance by Chance" opportunity led by company manager Kevin Taylor.
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