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Ballet West's Joshua Whitehead in Summerspace
Photograph: Courtesy Beau Pearson Ballet West's Joshua Whitehead in Summerspace

Immersed in Merce Cunningham

New York City celebrates the centennial of dance master Merce Cunningham this spring

By Kurt Gottschalk

A defining innovator of contemporary dance, Merce Cunningham was born a century ago this year. Along with his partner in life and art, composer John Cage, and their friend and accomplice, painter Jasper Johns, Cunningham helped create an aesthetic that dominated artistic expression in the 1950s and 1960s. The everyday was celebrated: Silence could be music, an American flag could be a painting, and the chaos of a city sidewalk could be a dance.

Cunningham’s choreography discarded narrative, emotional suggestion and even coordination with music, focusing instead on the physical form and movement of his dancers. He democratized his art by eliminating any notion of a focal point—the dance was happening everywhere. “The dancers are not pretending to be other than themselves,” he once said. “They are, rather than being someone, doing something.”

A Merce Cunningham Dance Company production could be a bustle of activity, with no center and no star. Yet many of Cunningham’s dancers have gone on to create major work of their own. To honor his ongoing legacy, his centennial will be marked with events around the world and in the city he called home. Here are some of the highlights.

Merce Cunningham Centenary Events

Jonah Bokaer
Photograph: Courtesy Livio Deponte

Harkness Dance Festival

Dance Contemporary and experimental

92Y marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of dance innovator Merce Cunningham with a month of performance and visual arts. The opening weekend is devoted to Cunningham dances performed by New York Theatre Ballet, New World School of the Arts, Melissa Toogood and Calvin Royal III. Subsequent weeks offer world premieres by companies founded by erstwhile Cunningham dancers: Douglas Dunn, Dylan Crossman, Jonah Bokaer and Ellen Cornfield. (James Klosty’s photographs of the Cunningham company are on view at 92Y through April 2.)

Richard Alston: The Seasons
Photograph: Courtesy Richard Termine

New York Theatre Ballet

Dance Ballet

The spring season of Diana Byer's company nears its 40th anniversary, it presents a spring season comprising three works: Richard Alston's The Seasons, Matthew Nash's The Elements of Style (1983) and, in honor of the centenary, Cunningham's Scramble (1967).

Netta Yerushalmy: Paramodernities
Photograph: Courtesy Hayim Heron

Netta Yerushalmy: Paramodernities

Dance Contemporary and experimental

Yerushalmy aims her cannons at the 20th-century dance canon in a six-part, four-hour deconstruction and critique of terpsichorean landmarks—including Cunningham's Rainforest, Sounddance, Points in Space, Beach Birds and Ocean.

Tei Blow
Photograph: Courtesy Tei Blow

Tei Blow and Laurel Atwell: Entry

Dance Contemporary and experimental

Interdisciplinary artists Blow and Atwell re-create Cunningham and Cage’s Ocean, a concentrically circular 1994 “dance in the round,” with an ear for our era of ASMR.

Stephen Petronio Company
Photograph: Courtesy Sarah Silver

Stephen Petronio Company: Bloodlines

Dance Contemporary and experimental

Petronio continues his fifth Bloodlines season, devoted to the lineage of postmodern dance, with a program that includes Cunningham's Tread (1970). 

Merce Cunningham in Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three.
Photograph: Courtesy Gerda Peterich

Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event

Dance Contemporary and experimental

On what would have been Cunningham’s 100th birthday, this celebration of his work is being mounted in New York (at BAM), London (at the Barbican) and Los Angeles (at UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance). More than two dozen dancers in each location perform a collection of 100 brief solos, all between 30 seconds and four minutes long. Plus, the musical director is composer John King, a longtime Cunningham collaborator.

The Washington Ballet
Photograph: Courtesy Dean Alexander

Merce Cunningham Centennial

Dance Contemporary and experimental

The Joyce presents three companies staging Cunningham's landmark works. CNDC–Angers/Robert Swinston mounts Suite for Five, Ballet West dances the classic Summerspace, and the Washington Ballet takes on Duets, a work for six couples.

Mina Nishimura
Photograph: Courtesy Hazuki Aikawa

Conversations with Merce

Dance Contemporary and experimental

NYU presents new works commissioned for the centenary. Rashaun Mitchell, who danced with Cunningham’s company, curates a program that features Netta Yerushalmy, Moriah Evans and Mina Nishimura.


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