Friday, December 28, 2007

Cunning Time

He's 88 and counting. Debonair ascot at his neck, eyes alert, he rides around in a wheelchair, pushed by someone decades younger than he. Many 88-year-olds suffer similar physical hardship. But this man's constraints have little to do with garden-variety aging: He is chair-bound because he never stopped jumping, falling, darting and turning, even as arthritis consumed his joints.

Until about a decade ago, Merce Cunningham, one of the great modernists of 20th century dance, hobbled around on twisted feet in evening-long performances like a dancing Prospero. He would turn a favorite dancer in a stately promenade, then let his hands elegantly inscribe the air. With his impassive but impish face and halo of curls, Cunningham seemed to keep the otherworldly near to hand, as Shakespeare in his later plays tended to do.

The choreographer began his professional career with Martha Graham in 1939. After six years, he left Graham and story dance behind and almost overnight became the artist to apply the radical innovations of modern music and painting to movement ideas. With groundbreaking composer John Cage at his side, he designed dance sequencing based on chance, using the roll of dice to determine how the dance phrases would line up. He insisted on the independence of music, dance and decor. And he had his dancers move in Olympian fashion, yet never tell a recognizable story. He has never stopped experimenting.

On Jan. 25 and 26 in two separate programs at Stanford University's Memorial Auditorium, the Bay Area gets to sample the wizard's latest invention, "eyeSpace." Bring your iPods to the theater (first go to and download), or, if you don't own one, be issued a player when you walk into the theater with preloaded sound selections (iPods must be returned). As eyeSpace begins, start tuning: You get to make the choices in the sound you hear.

The other option is to remove the earbuds and listen to composer Mikel Rouse's sound score or, perhaps, your neighbor's dreamy humming. The idea, according to Cunningham's executive director Trevor Carlson, is to have a private experience shared by an entire group. Think a New York subway car filled with people plugged into the same array of sounds, chosen at will, randomly.

No one would be surprised if the use of iPods were a gimmick -- a way, perhaps, to get Apple sponsorship, or draw in a crossover audience. What is surprising is that Cunningham almost always comes off as the master of whatever trends he tries, not the marketeers.

In the 1990s, Cunningham began applying computer technology and a program called Dance Forms (previously Life Forms) to expand his dance-making capacities. Some accused him of faddism. To the choreographer, though, technology offered and continues to offer another way to push the boundaries of the physical universe.

Using Dance Forms, he began to design movement of almost humanly impossible shape, projecting onto his dancers the angularity of Egyptian figures or giving them a science-fiction strangeness, like creatures whose legs were arms and arms were legs. Whether or not the results were always successful mattered little to Cunningham. What he has cared about, he says, is not whether the experiment works, but that he learn something new.

Experimentation isn't exclusive to "eyeSpace" in this run. The Jan. 25 concert includes two other seminal works, "Crises" from 1960, and the 1993 "CRWDSPCR." Asked to describe "Crises," John Cage once called it "a dramatic, though not a narrative, dance concerned with decisive moments in the relationship between a man and four women."

It is set to selections from Conlon Nancarrow's "Rhythm Studies for Player Piano," created by the avant-garde composer by punching holes in player piano rolls. "CRWDSPCR," as dance historian Roger Copeland aptly says, is one of the savviest comments on the role of the microchip in our perception of time and space (the title, allowed to breathe, can be read as either Crowd Spacer or Crowds Pacer). On Jan. 26 in addition to "eyeSpace," the evening will include the 1999 work "Biped."

Details: Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Stanford's Memorial Auditorium, Jan. 25 and 26, 8 p.m. $20-46 general, $10-23 Stanford students. 551 Serra Mall, Stanford University. 650-725-ARTS,

ALSO COMING UP: At the nether end of the contemporary spectrum, anarchist dancemaker Keith Hennessy will reprise his 2007 anti-war spectacle, "Sol niger" (Black sun), which is as messy and eclectic as Cunningham's work is abstract and refined. Running for two weeks at Project Artaud Theater in San Francisco (Jan. 16-19 and 23-26), Hennessy's band of deft performers employs circus techniques, aerial work, expressionist theater and live and prepared music in a potent political cocktail. Referring to a solar eclipse, "Sol niger" takes a hard look at the Iraq war and national and international U.S. policies.
Details: 8 p.m. Jan. 16-19 and Jan. 23-26. 450 Florida St., S.F. Tickets $25 except Wednesdays -- "Pay what you can," cash only at the door. 415-255-2500 or

On an altogether different note, the Boston-based Collage Dance Ensemble joins Stanford's Turkish troupe Yore Folk Dance Ensemble on Jan. 19 at Berkeley's Roda Theatre. The two troupes join forces for a lively night of Turkish, Balkan and Eastern European music and dance titled "Anatolian Rhythms." They promise to have you dancing in your seat.
Details: 8 p.m. Jan. 19, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. $15-$30. 510-647-2949.

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