- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 2, 2006

Right from the beginning choreographer Merce Cunningham was an iconoclastic artist. Six decades later his innovative approach continues to sustain him — witness his company’s bracing performance over the weekend at the Kennedy Center that included the Washington premiere of his 2004 work, “Views on Stage.”

Those “Views” encompass ideas that were startling when he began. He broke the tie between dance and music, found new ways to structure movement and forged partnerships with some of the most influential avant-garde artists of his generation — in particular with his partner, composer John Cage, but also with the likes of Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol.

His influence on emerging choreographers in the 1960s and ‘70s was huge. Many of his concepts are now part of the landscape, like having dancers focus in any direction on stage, not just toward the audience.

Today many artists revere him — Mark Morris for instance — but have forged paths that say yes to music, to the emotional qualities and resonance it brings to dance.

Mr. Cunningham, however, is still liberated by eliminating music; instead, often using sounds and sometimes unpleasant ones at that — screeches and rumbles, usually heavily amplified.

The most traditional sound came from two scores by Mr. Cage written in the 1980s, performed by Christian Wolff, William Winant and Takehisa Kosugi, and used as the aural background in “Views on Stage.”

Its spare dissonances are an apt accompaniment to a work enhanced visually by a trio of artists. Ernesto Neto, a Brazilian designer, created the stunning, mysterious decor — a white overhead canopy that looks like it’s dripping huge drops of milk, or like white cows’ udders, or curious hanging stalactites. James Hall’s costumes have a patterned bodice, a bare back and knee length white whirly skirts for both men and women. Josh Johnson’s lighting reinforces the visual impact.

The dancing has the clarity and alertness that are hallmarks of Mr. Cunningham’s choreography and of his remarkable dancers. The movements are demanding; tension shows with poses held on half toe, sometimes with amazing control, sometimes with the effort obvious. When dancers exit they run offstage with a lightness that is in happy contrast.

The men, skirts and all, are a striking, commanding lot, the women, equally talented, appear more genteel and fresh-faced. Mostly the sexes move separately but occasionally meet in quicksilver partnering. The pace quickens, the lifts become more daring, then the action stops abruptly.

“Fabrications,” a 1987 work, has decor and costumes by Dove Bradshaw and a score by Emanuel Dimas de Melo Pimenta that involved city sounds and silence.

What affect the silence would have had on Saturday’s audience we’ll never know. During a section designed to be performed in silence there was a high-decibel contribution from an audience member who coughed and hacked over a prolonged period — more than five minutes — but stayed resolutely seated. Perhaps Mr. Cunningham, who welcomes the unexpected more than most, was less disturbed by this hijacking of the score than the long-suffering audience.

The program concluded with the previously seen “Sounddance,” a high energy work that had the dancers swirling out from tan curtains swagged against the back of the stage. It was a lively finale, but David Tudor’s rasping score, “Untitled,” drove some of the audience out the door.

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