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Saturday, May 19, 2007
The Orange County Center for the Performing Arts

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company has been around for over 50 years, which means that it’s been an influential and defining institution in the modern dance world for about half of the time that world has even existed. This is remarkable feat in its own right but perhaps even more impressive was the fact that, after all those years, the group still feels entirely fresh and relevant.

Granted, Saturday night’s one-time-only performance was the first time I have seen this company live so perhaps comments about its “freshness” are unjustified. Yet the experience the company provided – from the multiple venues to the integration of new technology – convinced me that Mr. Cunningham has succeeded in remaining at the forefront of progressive dance. And the fact that Mr. Cunningham, now 88, has been using computer technology as a choreographic tool for nearly a decade and has cleverly utilized iPods in his newest work, once again points to his accomplishment not just as an established icon but as an important contemporary contributor as well.

“MinEvent” kicked off the evening in the stunning new Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. The work, a compilation of excerpts drawn from the company’s repertory, also featured phrases created specifically for this space. Performed to live music by John King and William Winant that at times shocked the audience with unexpected violence and volume, MinEvent was a strong example of the Cunningham aesthetic as described in the pre-show talk by Bonnie Brooks, the Dance Department Chair from Columbia College in Chicago.

The design of the new concert hall allowed a small portion of the audience to sit surrounding the stage, while most of the audience viewed the performance from the traditional perspective facing the proscenium. I was positioned on a balcony overlooking the stage from above one wing, looking directly into the stage-left wing. With any other choreographer, I might have been irritated.

However Cunningham’s democratization of the space, a concept pointed out by Brooks, allowed each angle and perspective to be equally valued. In addition, the aerial view provided another element of the design to be appreciated – that of the dancers’ shadows playing on the floor.

And perhaps the most satisfying surprise of my unusual positioning was the presence of Mr. Cunningham himself sitting in the wing, observing his company throughout the nearly 40-minute work. From my perspective, he was always within view, remaining mostly still in his wheelchair, never acknowledging the dancers rushing by him, nor applauding at the conclusion of the piece, just observing. Whether he was pleased with the product or making mental notes for improvements can’t be known. But his unintentional cameo, seen only from the sidelines by this writer and perhaps a few others, was a privilege.

The intermission following “MinEvent”served as an opportunity to present more Cunningham work as the hundreds of concert attendees filled the Community Arts Plaza to view the dance film “Beach Birds for Camera”, projected on the side of the opera house and accompanied, however sparingly, by live music set up (but not amplified) on the plaza.

From there, the audience moved into the original Segerstrom Hall, the opera house that would serve as the venue for Cunningham’s most recent work “eyeSpace”. The gimmick of the piece was the use of iPods to allow each audience member to determine a personal score so that each person had somewhat of a customized performance, set to one’s choice of music.

The concept didn’t work so much for me. The ability to choose soundtracks and adjust volume simply provided a distraction to take one out of the piece. In addition to that, the music that was preloaded on the iPod shuffles that were handed to the audience wasn’t as satisfying, or as compelling, as the soundscape played throughout the theater. The movement was intricate and beautiful, particularly a closing duet by Julie Cunningham (no relation) and Daniel Squire.

Yet the iPod element didn’t contribute anything extra to the work. Rather, it felt isolating and made the performance an individual experience instead of a communal one. Though this was likely the point, I felt something lacking in the loss of a shared experience in the theater. That and the fact that the work felt short and the ending seemed abrupt and awkward when the stage went dark while my iPod continued playing.

The evening continued with one final piece as dance students from the University of California, Irvine, who had worked with some members of the Cunningham company, performed a work, “MinEvent Playground” on the plaza while videography students from Chapman University filmed the piece live and projected it onto the wall. It was a special experience for the students, I’m sure, though an anti-climactic ending for the audience that had just witnessed some extraordinary dancing and stunning dance architecture.

The constant movement of the evening, from one concert hall to the plaza to another concert hall and back to the plaza, created a feeling of migration and that of a journey where around every corner was a new oasis to discover, a new work to enjoy and contemplate, and a confirmation that Mr. Cunningham is still a master of innovation and surprise.