Arts & Culture

Choreographer Merce Cunningham Comes to Orange County for a One-Night Stand

Feet move like paintbrushes gliding, stroking the floor like a canvas. An electric violin screeches and a tribal drumbeat accompanies it. The music rings out over the dancers dressed in full blue unitards lit under blue lights. It is the first meeting between all these elements, intertwining live, creating something new from independent entities.

This is the scene from the latest Merce Cunningham concoction performed at the Orange County Performing Arts Center Saturday night.

His unique style of dance has survived since the 1950s and has given him fame as arguably the greatest living choreographer. He used philosophy and pioneering style to create a new genre called “chance dance” based on the idea dance movements and music are created separately, only combined for the main act where the creators and audience discover if the relationship will be a match.

In art, finding beauty is often in creating harmony between all elements. In dance this is usually fashioned as a cohesive unit, but Merce Cunningham, and those working with him, finds harmony experimentally, searching for moments where the independent creations find kinship through chance encounter.

Cunningham, 88, has been successful in his endeavors for decades with help from his late life-partner, composer John Cage. Cunningham, after starting dance in his hometown of Centralia, Wash., moved onto being a soloist in the world-renowned Martha Graham Company.

Five years into being there he split. In 1953 Cunningham formed his own company, working with Cage until his death in 1992.

At the OCPAC performance Cunningham premiered his newest show “eyeSpace,” which had only been performed in New York and Miami before visiting the West Cost. For the OCPAC show Cunningham added a special performance that opened the night simply called “Event.”

An innovative spin on Cunningham’s classic style, “eyeSpace” implements iPod shuffles within the performance.

Audience members are given iPods filled with music created by Mikel Rouse called “International Cloud Atlas.” The music plays on shuffle giving each audience member a personal experience as they watch Cunningham’s company twist and turn, suspend on five toes, or “releve,” balance it all on one leg, an perform Cunningham’s challenging choreography with precision.

When the dances are not moving the suspension created presents action in the difficulty of stillness.

Unlike most ballets, which revolve around a narrative, Cunningham is more about the movements of the dance, presenting moments in time revolving around space. It is about the freedom of dancing and the experience for the viewer.

“Our ecstasy in dance comes from the possible gift of freedom, the exhilarating moment that this exposing of the bare energy can give us,” said Cunningham in 1952. “What is meant is not license, but freedom.”

THE RENEE and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall feels bigger than it is.
Looking up from the orchestra it is like the giant concert halls onboard ritzy cruise ships. The boxes curve into the walls like clay molded by hand. Organ pipes look like whistles and cover the back wall. Below are patrons sitting behind the stage in the theatre-in-the-round shaped arena. Blue lights beam down from giant silver piano keys hanging from the ceiling.

First there is silence. Then an eerie scratching from the violin. The entire company is present, beginning the shuffle of the initial dance in “Event.”

The music in “Event” could be easily described as an assortment of sounds. The violin player jabs and slices while another musician uses a range of instruments to make rattles, bangs, booms, and claps. It is cluttered yet rhythmic. One wouldn’t think these are the tunes going to a ballet, but therein lies the genius of Cunningham, as well as Cage when he was living.

It is avant-garde. Each element unique, combined in a novel way to create a new piece every time. It can’t be replicated or reproduced; to do so would defeat the purpose.

The dancers begin by holding hands then break from the connectedness into individual dances and motions that may or may not intersect with each other. Symbolic of the style of Cunningham’s choreography, each dancer is independent but functions within the whole.

“Event’s” environment is playful. The dancers scurry on the stage like playful mice. One portion has three men sitting, playing jacks while a female dancer stands in the middle, slowly moving, holding majestic positions. She is a statue, slow and picturesque versus the quickening pace of the youth and innocence of the boys who surround her.

Later two dancers stand together as another runs through them and around them, they seem to be playing a ballet game of red rover. Then it is ring around the posy. Steadily it climbs into more dancers, more scuffling against the floor, more action.

The highlight was one soloist who seemed to command each limb and portion of her body so well that each was its own entity. She dances like a machine with a thousand loose points, each moving at beautiful angles in correspondence to the others. During “Event” she was the only one to receive applause before the finish.

All the dancers meet on stage, much like the beginning. They dance interwoven and apart closing out the 36-minute performance.

THE MAIN EVENT is in Segerstrom Hall across from the Concert Hall. A proscenium theater, the balconies are introduced in wedges from right to left with the orchestra seated below.

Before a backdrop of paint spouts, blue shooting down on top of a multitude of colors attacking the barrage of blue above it, “eyeSpace” only runs about 20 minutes in this performance. The full version goes about 40.
This is ballet meets indie rock.

Mikel Rouse’s music is a folk, indie mix. It is upbeat but mellow. A political lullaby with lyrics such as “America must keep its secrets” that creep into the ears of listeners like subliminal messages. It is interesting to the point one could get lost in it, forgetting the dancers before them.

While the music plays through the iPod’s earphones, the theater adds crashing sounds, elements of destruction that blast into the atmosphere of the theater.

The dancers interact much more in “eyeSpace” and it fits with the music that speaks to the viewers much like the relationships taken place on stage. There isn’t the clutter or spontaneity like “Event,” but “eyeSpace” is keyed on grace. It features quartets, trios, and in closing, a duet.

As the dance begins to pick up, a synchronized duet, each element—art, music, and dance–works together despite their independent roots, abruptly, the show comes to an end. It is meet with startled applause, appreciative, but wanting more.
A one-night stand of sorts for a one night performance of a chance encounter, the end to the newest dance from the great Merce Cunningham.

Click here to check out our article on more upcoming OCPAC events or visit for more information.

Photos courtesy of the Orange County Performing Arts Center. 

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