Man on a Wire

Merce Cunningham brings modern dance up to date.

Even in the weird modern dance world, Merce Cunningham stands out as being a little left of center. He’s known for work that seems dissociative — sometimes incomprehensible — since the movements aren’t always synchronized with the music. Cunningham has often plotted his choreography using chance operations (such as hexagrams from the I Ching) rather than traditional storylines. He often furnished his dance pieces with a sound palette that had no ostensible relation to what was happening onstage. He used motion-capture technology before it became fashionable. To this day, he choreographs with a software program that he helped develop in 1991. In some ways, his work more closely resembles that of an improvisational jazz trio than a repertory dance company. The emphasis is on minute points rather than fleshed-out compositions, and all the drama gets conveyed through the dancers’ bodies, rather than through a score that tells you what to feel.

Yet, what most distinguishes him from other choreographers is his fascination with new technologies. Such curiosity has led him to collaborate with painters, video artists, avant-garde musicians, and engineers, so that his pieces are more like installations than proscenium-based dances. Cunningham’s November residency at Cal Performances will highlight the interdisciplinary nature of his work, and show how his influence has bled into other fields. In addition to seven performances — including the 2006 work eyeSpace, which allows listeners to choose between an ambient score and an iPod shuffle — the two-week engagement will feature several Cunningham-themed campus events, culminating with Panorama: Multi Media Happening (Nov. 14 in UC Berkeley’s Pauley Ballroom). Conceived by UC Berkeley dance department head Lisa Wymore, Panorama is a collage of technologies and dance theater performances inspired by 9 Evenings: Theater & Engineering, an event that Cunningham and several other artists held at New York City’s 27th Street Armory in 1966. It will feature an hour-long looped dance performance, robotic camera eyes that stream data from Zellerbach Hall, and two tele-immersion systems that allow you to move through a virtual environment. True to Cunningham’s aesthetic, Wymore said all the wiring will be “very much revealed.” Merce Cunningham Dance Company performs November 7 through 15 at Zellerbach Hall (8 p.m., $26-$48).


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