At first glance, many aspects of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company seem surprisingly understated for such a world-renowned group. No visual image overwhelms the clean movement lines. No complicated stories or political statements break the performance flow. No musical scores dictate the speed or mood of the work. Of course, all of these elements are still present, but it's the careful, almost Zen-like placement of dance in the context of other art forms that sets the 80-year-old Cunningham apart from his peers and, one could argue, the emerging dancemakers of the last decade.
David Vaughan, who has been associated with the choreographer since 1959, first as a studio administrator and now as a company archivist, has a simple answer for the continuing relevance of the artist familiar to many as just plain "Merce." "He believes in saying 'yes' rather than 'no,'" explains Vaughan, adding that "his vitality doesn't seem to get any less as he gets older. He's working on choreography and he's always interested in new technology. He's looking forward. He doesn't concern himself so much with the past." This propensity has spawned countless seminal collaborations with composers and visual artists throughout the years, including, most notably, John Cage as well as David Tudor, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, and, recently, Rei Kawakubo, lead designer for Commes des Garçons.
Belief in the power of the present also led Cunningham to create his signature "events": one-of-a-kind performances that unfold with little prior planning other than the rehearsal of selected dance excerpts from previous works. As part of the Walker Art Center's ongoing Art Performs Life exhibit featuring the careers of Cunningham, Meredith Monk, and Bill T. Jones, the company will stage an event outdoors this Saturday during the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden's 10th-anniversary celebration.
According to Vaughan, this particular event will integrate elements of a Warhol-designed set for "Rainforest" (currently on view in the exhibit), and features live music by company composer Takehisa Kosugi with his guests Christian Marclay and Jim O'Rourke. Whatever the musicians do during the event will be a complete surprise to the dancers, a true test of their discipline and focus. "The company never rehearses with the music. They rehearse in silence," says Vaughan. "The musicians create their music at the time of the performance." This practice falls in line with Cunningham's lifelong reliance on chance techniques when creating and ordering his works. Suffice it to say that "predictability" is never a word one would use to describe this artist's approach.
In addition, during events of recent years it wasn't at all unusual for Cunningham himself to wander into the action onstage. Often swathed in a workmanlike blue jumpsuit with his curly white hair halo atop his head, the choreographer would move his arms (true to his self-created technique), while his worn feet defiantly stood their ground. These were magical moments, especially when the younger, more agile dancers mirrored his movements with the faith of followers. Unfortunately, Cunningham stopped performing when the company toured in Prague last year, but local audiences will have an opportunity to join him in conversation with Walker curators Philippe Vergne and Philip Bither during a "Talking Dance" program on Thursday night at 8 p.m.
"Event for the Garden" will be held on Saturday at 2:15 p.m. at Walker Art Center, Vineland Place, Mpls.; 375-7622.