In a yearlong celebration of what would have been the 100th birthday of influential choreographer Merce Cunningham, his works are being performed at venues in Paris and London, New York and Los Angeles — and at East Carolina University.
Excerpts from “Assemblage,” which the American dancer and modern choreographer composed in 1968, are being performed as part of Fall Dance 2019. The annual production, which opens today in McGinnis Auditorium, will feature a range of works from classical ballet to modern, tap and jazz, along with a composition from the musical “Oklahoma!” created by celebrated choreographer Agnes de Mille.
“It’s an honor to perform both of them (Cunningham and de Mille) because of their stature in the world of dance,” said John Dixon, an associate professor in the ECU School of Theatre and Dance, who serves as concert coordinator for Fall Dance 2019. “To have both of them on the same program is really beyond imagination.”
Simply being selected to perform Cunningham’s choreography involved a series of steps. Presenting institutions and companies chosen to represent his legacy were required to obtain approval from the Cunningham Dance Foundation.
“All around the world, (over the last year) it’s an international festival to celebrate Cunningham’s work,” said Jayme Host, director of ECU’s School of Theatre and Dance. “They’ve allowed few universities the privilege of presenting one of their Cunningham pieces. It is an elite group, a small number of universities that have been given that privilege.”
For “Assemblage,” which was featured in a film by the same name, former Cunningham company member Daniel Madoff spent two weeks at ECU earlier this semester, teaching dancers the required technique. Madoff, who also is Host’s former student, is back at the university this week to ensure that the piece meets the requirements of the foundation, which preserves works from the Cunningham repertory so that future generations that study and perform these works will understand how they originated.
Cunningham, who died in 2009 at age 90, choreographed some 200 works in a dance career that spanned nearly 70 years. He was known for his innovative collaborations, particularly with partner John Cage, and his philosophy that dance had no need to tell a story or to be coordinated with its music.
“It’s rare that you would see any kind of storyline or some kind of larger idea come through,” Dixon said. “His work is very abstract. Even now, his work is cutting edge because it really pushes the boundaries of how we look at dance actions relating in time and space.
“The idea is dance and music can co-exist without having direct relationships,” he said. “It’s part of the whole early post-modern perspective, disconnecting the timing of music to the timing of dance. So the music will stand on its own, and the dance will stand on its own.”
To prepare for the performance, students rehearsed the choreography in silence. Dancers will not hear the music — an original score by the School of Music — until the performance, and the music will be different at different performances.
“You can’t rest on the backdrop of the music,” Host said. “You have to be fully aware of the choreography as it’s happening.
“The collaboration is supposed to full-heartedly represent how Cunningham would work, the simultaneity of each art,” she said, “the dance, the costuming and the music all being respected for their individual identities.”
By contrast, “Oklahoma Suite,” by de Mille, (staged by guest artist Elena Zahlmann) will feature music by Richard Rodgers, which audiences have come to identify with the iconic choreography. Unlike Cunningham, de Mille was known for her attention to the narrative aspect of dance.
“Agnes de Mille had an incredible knack for finding just the right gesture, just the right action to communicate something really sophisticated and subtle,” Dixon said.
Also featured in Dance 2019 are the ballet “Jewels” from “The Sleeping Beauty,” staged by dance faculty members Jessica Teague and Galina Panova; “pieace,” a contemporary work choreographed by Dixon; and “Martiya,” a jazz piece choreographed by Tommi Galaska. “Six Saturday Nights With Fats,” a half-dozen short tap dances choreographed by Dirk Lumbard, with music and lyrics by Fats Waller, will be interspersed throughout. The performance also will include a student-choreographed piece by Autumn Stowers, a senior dance performance and choreography major from Southport.
“It’s a living dance history,” Host said of the concert, which is a look at the past, present and future of dance.
“This show is, I think kind of an exceptional one for us,” he said. “People who come to this show are going to see where has dance been, two very different perspectives on what the capacity of dance is from master choreographers in the 20th century. You really see such a spectrum of what dance can do and become.”
Contact Kim Grizzard at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 252-329-9578.