NEW YORK, Sept. 10 (UPI) -- Merce Cunningham, the grand old man of American modern dance, is beginning a yearlong celebration of the 50th anniversary of his dance company that will include special performances and major tours in the United States and abroad.
Cunningham, 83, launched the observance in July with a two-day Lincoln Center festival of dances he has choreographed for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company since its founding in 1953 including a new work, "Loose Time." He his preparing his company for a London season later this month. The celebration will end with an engagement at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in October 2003.
The former dancer and still-active choreographer also is making his debut in another field, art. A collection of animal and plant sketches he has made over the years has just been published under the title of "Other Animals."
Cunningham suffers from severe arthritis that has reduced him to tap dancing, the first form of dancing he studied some 70 years ago in his native Centralia, Wash., but he does the taps while seated in a chair. But he still is able to work out at the barre in his West Village studio, moving his feet only, teach several dance classes a week, and rehearse his dancers in both old and new dance works.
"Loose Time," danced by 16 members of the Cunningham company, was well received by critics who praised its "fiery and original impact" and described it as "magnificent and explosive piece." Although it is basically an ensemble work, there is one exhilarating solo performed by Holley Farmer, one of the company's lead dancers.
The score by Christian Wolff provides a dramatic thread for the work but does not give musical support to the dance movements. These are performed by dancers moving independently and brought into contact with other dancers only by combinations of movements to differing sets of rhythms. It's an old choreographic trick of Cunningham's and one that is full of surprises.
The choreographer has always used chance procedures in creating his dances, and another work performed at Lincoln Center, "Suite for Five" dating from 1950, is as random in its movements as a throw of the dice. It has a score by the John Cage, who was Cunningham's collaborator in his work as well as his life partner. He and Cage have been known to consult Chinese divination books or trace imperfections in a piece of paper for compositional inspiration.
Writing in his 1975 biography, "Merce Cunningham," James Klosty said "Cunningham uses chance much as he might use a magnet, to draw possibilities to him from beyond his reach and to arrange his materials, like iron filings, into relationships he might not otherwise have seen." He also noted that Cunningham carefully recorded the results of his random compositions through performance notes and video that can be consulted by future generations of dancers.
Cunningham studied dance and theater formally at the Cornish School of Fine Arts in Seattle, where he met Cage, a pianist for dance classes there. His talents as a dancer were subsequently noticed by an associate of Martha Graham, who brought Cunningham East and enrolled him with Graham's admired company of modern dancers. Cage followed him to New York and encouraged him to form his own company.
Cunningham presented his first program on his own at the Humphrey-Weidman Studio Theater in Manhattan in 1944 but it was not until nine years later, when he had a summer residency at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, that he formed his own company. For a decade his dancers toured the United States by bus, trying to find acceptance but barely making enough to cover expenses. It took a triumphant tour of Europe in 1964 to bring them honor in their own land.
Since then, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company has been one of the nation's leading dance organizations. Some of the troupe's history is recalled by a selection of slides narrated by Cunningham and an eight-minute film showing segments of his choreography that will be shown wherever the company dances in the current anniversary season.
Cunningham's book, "Other Animals: Drawing and Journals" (Aperture, 96 pages, $30), contains journal entries from 1972 to 2000, photographs of him as a dancer, and humorous sketches of animals, insects and plants. One of the sketches, of a tree outside his hotel window, was blown up for the set of his dance, "Polarity," in 1990. The animal sketches include a parrot riding a turtle, a flower-eating lizard, a huge mosquito, a cat contemplating a bird, and an ostrich posed very much like a dancer.