Maverick choreographer Merce Cunningham doesn't create easily accessible dances. His pieces include few dramatic climaxes and no explicit meanings behind the movements, and often the music, set design, and choreography remain independent (rather than integrated) onstage. In these ways, he challenges audiences to engage with his art as a high-concept experience that's not only about dancing. For theatergoers accustomed to the feel-good traditional forms of, say, Alvin Ailey, this is provocative stuff.
But Cunningham's no stranger to controversy. He didn't find success in the United States until more than a decade after founding his own company, which originally included longtime partner and new-music guru John Cage, in 1953. In the early days, the troupe would hit the road like a low-budget rock band, driving a VW van to play remote gigs a couple of times a year. It wasn't until a 1964 European tour generated media accolades abroad that the American arts establishment began to take notice.
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Now 83, Cunningham is widely regarded as one of the most important modern dance figures of the past 50 years. He celebrates the golden anniversary of his company with a two-night presentation spanning his storied career, from restaged early works (including 1956's Suite for Five, with music by Cage) to the stateside premiere of Fluid Canvas(a new piece choreographed, in part, with Lifeforms, a 3-D software program). Though his vision has evolved over the years, the artist continues to use improv and chance methods during the creation process to upend expectations. He requires an almost inhuman technical precision from his dancers that pushes the limits of the body. Trademark Cunningham moves are reminiscent of multilayered geometric patterns, featuring upright spines, tilted torsos, and elongated limbs. A demanding choreographer for both performer and audience, Cunningham defies convention with his still-revolutionary aesthetic.