Art in the Round

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Jeff Christensen/AP

Art in the Round: The Merce Cunningham Dance Company

March 18, 2009
by Isabel Cowles
Since its inception in the mid-20th century, modern dance has defied conventions of plot and technique, showcasing the expressiveness of movement and the body outside of a formal structure. FindingDulcinea takes a look at the inspiration and enduring work of Merce Cunningham and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, from its founding to its current dancers and repertory.

Cunningham’s Inspiration

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Merce Cunningham has been fascinated with movement all his life. His mother once described him dancing down the aisle of the family church when Cunningham was just four years old. The renowned choreographer established the Merce Cunningham Dance Company the summer of 1953, at Black Mountain College in North Carolina.

For Cunningham, movement is not just a means of expressing  a story—movement itself is the subject. Rather than examining character psychology or plot through choreography, Cunningham’s work focuses on dance for dance’s sake.

Cunningham’s Company and Collaboration

One of Cunningham’s biggest professional influences was his friend and lifelong companion, John Cage. In 1991, Cunningham and Cage came up with the ambitious collaboration, “Ocean.” The piece was to be performed in a circular space, with the audience seated around the dancers and a 112-piece orchestra surrounding the audience.

Cage died before the music for “Ocean” was written, but composers David Tudor and Andrew Culver completed the score, and the piece premiered in 1994. Cunningham explained the use and function of music in “Ocean” in an interview with Salon: “We don't hear the music until the night before—the dancers do not dance to the music. The music is made quite separate, much like sight and sound—they merely coexist. It's more like Fuller's term ‘synergy,’ where two energies, quite separate, get together and they produce something that no one realized was going to happen until they came together, and then something happens.”

Ocean Revived

In September 2008, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company revived “Ocean” on a stage built at the bottom of a granite quarry in central Minnesota, 100 feet below ground. Filmmaker Charles Atlas shot the performance with five cameras. 

Trevor Carlson, executive director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, discussed the significance of remounting the piece: “This is his largest work, and it has such sentimental value because of [Cunningham’s] relationship with Cage. We were resistant to remounting this because it seemed so difficult to capture on camera with an audience present. But if we didn’t remount it, it would just have been a memory.”

Watch the Merce Cunningham Dance Company

The company consistently performs both nationally and internationally and tickets can be purchased online. Although new dances are frequently added to the company’s repertoire, the group also revives its traditional pieces.
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