Take A Chance On Dance

Surprise is key to Merce Cunningham Company


September 02, 2004|By Lori Sears | Lori Sears,SUN STAFF

If you like variety, spontaneity and a bit of the unexpected in your dance performances, consider attending not just one, but two or three of Merce Cunningham Dance Company's "Split Sides" shows beginning Wednesday at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, College Park. The chances are great that you'll see completely different shows each time.

For "Split Sides," which is composed of two 20-minute segments, audience members will be invited onstage to roll dice, thus determining the order of the program.

The dance company's general manager, Trevor Carlson, explains: "One of the ways [Cunningham] works is through chance procedures. On the night of each performance, audience members will roll the dice. If the die is even, it identifies one thing. Odd another. What we're doing is organizing the order of the elements."

The elements being the dance, the music, the lighting, the decor and the costumes, of which there are two versions of each.

"It allows for 32 possible combinations for [`Split Sides']," Carlson says. "It's really quite spectacular. We've been performing it since October 2003, when it premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York."

The 85-year-old Cunningham brings his 14-member company to the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center Wednesday and Sept. 9 and 10 for three -- potentially very different -- shows.

The dance troupe performs two complete pieces each night -- "Split Sides" as well as "Ground Level Overlay" -- both of which are area premieres.

For "Split Sides," British alternative rock band Radiohead and Icelandic experimental rock band Sigur Ros composed the show's two musical scores. Radiohead's composition features electronic sounds, from sampled voices to synthesized gasps and moans. Sigur Ros' composition uses a glockenspiel, music boxes and a homemade instrument created especially for this piece, made from eight pointe shoes.

For the College Park shows, the dancers perform with recorded music from the two bands, as well as with live musicians from the dance company.

So how does an eightysomething choreographer come to work with a couple of alternative rock bands?

"There's no age barrier," says Carlson, who suggested using the bands to Cunningham. "Merce definitely likes to work with artists whose work is interesting to him. He keeps his mind open and accepts the challenge. He's very open to hearing and observing what's happening [around him]."

Robert Swinston, assistant to the choreographer and one of the dancers, couldn't agree more.

"Merce is open to anything," Swinston says. "Radiohead is nothing compared to what we've done [in the past]. We don't always perform to pretty music. This is pretty."

In fact, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company dancers don't ever even rehearse to music. Just as Cunningham had always done with his longtime musical collaborator John Cage, the dance and music are created independently, with dancers oftentimes not hearing the music until dress rehearsal or sometimes the first performance.

Such was also the case for the other work that will be presented at College Park. "Ground Level Overlay," a 30-minute-long piece created in 1995, was composed independently of the music, decor and costumes.

The piece, with computer-processed phrases of movement, features a sensual duet to the music of avant-garde trombonist Stuart Dempster. The music, created by 11 trombones, was recorded in a 2 million gallon former water tank near Seattle. The "Cistern Chapel," as it was called, caused the music to reverberate and created a long decay time, making a series of overlays of sound. And giving the work its title.

Busy as ever, Cunningham, along with filmmaker Charles Atlas, has just created an as-yet untitled new film-dance that will premiere this fall.

"He makes dance material like it's going out of style," says Swinston.

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company performs at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 9 and 10 at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, Kay Theatre, University of Maryland, College Park, Route 193 and Stadium Drive, College Park. $35; $7 students. Call 301-405-ARTS or visit www.claricesmithcen ter.umd.edu.

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