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Photograph: Richard RutledgeMerce Cunningham in Antic Meet (1958)

Preview | Merce Cunningham Dance Company: The Legacy Tour

Cunningham expert Bonnie Brooks helps calm our nerves about his company’s looming farewell.

It felt too fast and too final—at first. Seven months after Merce Cunningham’s death, at age 90 in July 2009, a farewell tour began. Sure, a thoughtful, high-tech plan had also been announced, to catalog his groundbreaking works and establish methods for faithful revivals. A beautiful little iPad app from the 2wice Arts Foundation bodes well for a more in-depth one to come, Merce Cunningham: 65 Years, based on a book by the artist’s longtime archivist, David Vaughan. But after the Legacy Tour, a two-year international good-bye, the company—the Merce freaking Cunningham Dance Company—would cease to exist. This did not seem okay.

The tour’s terminus has remained the same—December 31, 2011, at the Park Avenue Armory in New York—but more stops were squeezed in. The Chicago shows, Friday 18 and Saturday 19, were moved to the Harris Theater from the much smaller Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago.

A phone call from Bonnie Brooks quelled my remaining feelings of abandonment. On sabbatical from Columbia, where she chaired the dance department and will return to teach next fall, Brooks joined the tour in June to help document, give talks and work with Vaughan on the forthcoming update to his book Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years.

“You have to look at the numbers,” Brooks says. “A lot of the way that [MCDC] was sustainable was through commissions for new work. Take that out of the equation and (a) you’re not going to get as many bookings and (b) you’re not going to get as much funding. Funders fund, and presenters invest in, the next piece. You get the wonderful, existing work through that process. Could the company continue? Yes. At the scale at which they’ve done it for all of these years? Probably not. Would that lead to artistic compromise of some kind? Eventually, yes, it probably would. This way, they can go out in a blaze of glory, and then new things can happen.”

Multiple works from throughout Cunningham’s career, some not seen in decades, are currently active as the Legacy Tour brings different programs to different cities. Brooks helped decide which four pieces Chicagoans would see.

Friday’s bill consists of three shorts spanning a quarter-century. Brooks on Squaregame (1976): “A delightful, very playful piece. One of the [Robert] Rauschenberg collaborations. It’s almost Brechtian in the way Merce has one eye on the audience while he’s conducting this ‘play,’ this romp.” Quartet (1982), for five people, including Robert Swinston in Cunningham’s original role, “is at the other end of the spectrum, almost elegiac in its tone…some of the most gorgeous material Merce ever made.” Antic Meet (1958) “is a spoof! And it’s also kind of a retrospective of Cunningham, [John] Cage and Rauschenberg, because you see elements of everything that each of them had done, had experimented with and been exposed to, up until that point.”

Roaratorio (1983), a longer piece, which stands alone on Saturday, “is one of my favorites of all time,” she says. “Cage was fascinated by [James] Joyce and did three things, basically: He went around Ireland to locations referenced in Finnegans Wake and took [audio] samples from there, he read excerpts from the novel itself, and he brought in Irish musicians. Merce did some study of Irish jigs and created these little dances that he described as a family going somewhere together. I think it’s the best example of Merce’s sheer love of dancing.”

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s final Chicago performances are Friday 18 and Saturday 19 at the Harris Theater.

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