- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Other groups may have bigger budgets and larger audiences than the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, but none can claim a greater influence on the direction of 20th-century dance.

From his exposure as a student to the iconoclastic ideas of composer John Cage, Mr. Cunningham gravitated to a new way of looking at dance.

His first professional experience was in Martha Graham’s company, where he left an indelible imprint on the roles she created for him in “Letter to the World” and “Appalachian Spring.”

Mr. Cunningham soon left the Graham company, though, and forged a personal and professional relationship with the innovative Mr. Cage, who died 12 years ago. The partnership radically challenged basic assumptions about the relationship between music and dance.

New York City, where Mr. Cunningham and Mr. Cage settled, was exploding in the ‘50s as a world arts center, galvanized by a remarkable synergy of artists and ideas.

Mr. Cunningham says the concepts percolating in that period were exhilarating and contagious. From the Chinese Book of Changes, the I Ching, he took the idea of determining the sequence of movements by chance. The chance movements he developed were extraordinarily alert and articulate, often Dada-like in their non sequiturs.

“What it introduced for your imagination was so lively,” Mr. Cunningham says. “It often produced things that were not physically possible, but it led to a different way of thinking about space, about continuity, about the directions people could face onstage.

“Also, there was change in the painting world. We met Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, and their ideas were interesting and different. Soon we worked with both of them.”

Sometimes the process received more attention than the art it produced. One of their more controversial decisions was to ignore the time-honored connection between music and dance. Choreographer and composer would agree on the exact time of the work and then proceed to create independently.

“Music was not made necessarily to support the dance, nor the dance to explain the music,” Mr. Cunningham says. The same degree of independence was there for the visual artists who decorated his stage.

“We would have something that no one of us singly could have predicted,” he says. “I’ve been fortunate to work with artists whose imaginations I’ve admired enormously, and I think what they’ve made has brought about a different way of looking at things.”

The choreographer continually found ways to keep the spontaneity of the unexpected in his work. He saw an Andy Warhol exhibit that featured silvery Mylar pillows filled with helium and asked the artist if he could use them in a dance.

“We had large ones free-floating onstage. What I liked so much was this was not a fixed decor, it was something that could change.”

The decor for “Pond Way,” performed here four years ago, is a quietly mesmerizing backdrop by Roy Lichtenstein. That came about through the kind of serendipity Mr. Cunningham relishes.

“I was coming to my studio in Westbeth,” he says. “Roy then lived across the street. I was getting out of a taxi, and he was getting in on the other side. I asked him, ‘Would you do a drop for us sometime?’ and he said, ‘Yes, but I have to go now, I have to go to the dentist.’

“After he died, Dorothy, his wife, showed us a whole bunch of possibilities, and we chose one, not because it had anything to do with the dance, but because I thought it would look beautiful enlarged on the stage.”

The earliest of Mr. Cunningham’s works to be seen this weekend is 1975’s “Sounddance.”

“It’s quite a busy dance,” the director says, “and the music is one of David Tudor’s first electronic scores. When we first did it, many people thought it was simply noise, but we’ve brought it back recently, and now they’ve begun to hear the music as separate sounds.”

This same acuity seems to have developed in the way people “see” Cunningham works nowadays.

“Because of television, everything goes faster,” the choreographer says. “When I revive older pieces, I slightly quicken them because people catch things much faster now.”

For more than a decade, Mr. Cunningham has found a new way to challenge his dance-making. He uses a computer program, DanceForms, to plot out part of every dance he creates.

“It’s absolutely absorbing. It gives me a way to plan out a sequence of movement, like a skeleton in a way.”

At 84, Mr. Cunningham retains an almost childlike delight in new ways of moving, listening and seeing. “I don’t listen to old masters,” he says. “I’m interested in what the people who live now do, what kind of ideas they have, and I have attempted to pursue that. They are the ones who live in the world I live in.”

WHAT: Merce Cunningham Dance Company

WHEN:Tomorrow and Saturday at 8 p.m.

WHERE: Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater

TICKETS: $19 to $45

PHONE: 202/467-4600

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